House Fate of Economic Bill in Doubt : Deficit: White House rebuffs call by senior Democrats for Clinton to make a TV appeal. Delay is likely as measure appears 20 votes short.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Still far short of votes to pass a troubled $340-billion deficit-reduction bill, senior House Democrats called on President Clinton Monday to make a nationally televised address to help the measure survive a showdown less than 72 hours away.

A delay in the vote--now scheduled for Thursday--became an increasing possibility as Democratic backing for the heart of the President's economic program remained at least 20 votes below the 218 required for certain House passage. No Republicans were expected to vote for the bill.

The President planned to meet today with three groups of House Democrats--the vote-counting whips, freshmen members and committee chairmen--to drum up support for his economic program, discuss strategy and get a hard count of supporters.

The White House, however, rebuffed suggestions that the President address the nation before the scheduled House action.

"I don't think that's going to happen," said White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. "I don't think we have time between now and the vote."

She said the Administration was "cautiously optimistic" the bill would be passed by the House.

New signs of trouble in the House emerged after Clinton's program ran into a buzz saw of criticism from prominent Democrats in the Senate last week, particularly for its broad-based energy tax.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said he did not anticipate any postponement in House consideration of the giant budget reconciliation bill, although he indicated that a majority was still not in hand.

"I cannot tell you where we are because many members have not yet decided what they are going to do," Foley told reporters. "I think there will be, when we reach a vote, a solid majority for it."

The President's session today was arranged as new polls indicated a dramatic drop in Clinton's job approval rating as well as a plunge in public confidence in his handling of the economy. The results will not make it easier for Congress to support his policies.

"A very strong presidential pitch is needed--the House should not be taken for granted," said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who acknowledged that fewer than 200 Democrats were now committed to vote for the unpopular combination of tax increases and spending cuts.

Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), a House leadership loyalist who is not sure that he can support the Administration's package, said the public has not been convinced that Clinton's prescription of tough economic medicine actually would reduce the deficit.

"The President should go on television and tell people: 'I need your help. Give me a chance,' " Glickman said. He indicated that he found very little support for the budget package on a weekend visit to Kansas. "The White House has not done an effective job in selling it," he said.

Despite the downbeat appraisals, however, Richardson said that a strong effort by Clinton and House Democratic leaders could overcome resistance to the President's program.

"It's not a done deal but it's moving in that direction," Richardson told a reporter.

Foley said the White House and Democratic leaders were "hanging tough" against making any changes in the controversial energy tax that has drawn fire from a half-dozen senators.

The defecting Senate Democrats have complained that Clinton's program would raise taxes too much and cut spending too little--clearly signaling that they will seek major modifications during Senate consideration of the package.

As a way of canceling the proposed energy levy, which would tax most forms of energy based on their heat-producing rating measured in British thermal units (BTUs), Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) explored prospects for a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax and additional spending reductions.

The turmoil in the Senate last week over a move by Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and a bipartisan group of allies to offer an alternative deficit-reduction package has had ripple effects in the House, since lawmakers there were uncertain whether the energy tax would survive or be dismembered in the other chamber.

Glickman said the proposed BTU tax was the main sticking point for House members who feared its potential impact on consumers, farmers and manufacturers.

Many House supporters of the tax also are not eager to take a politically risky stand in favor of it only to see it abolished in the Senate.

Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) said: "The worst nightmare for a legislator is to vote for a controversial bill, and then have it defeated. You get all of the downside and none of the upside."

Some House Democratic leaders blamed Boren for complicating the task of getting the massive reconciliation bill approved by timing his defection a week in advance of Thursday's vote, creating confusion about what a final budget package would be like.

"The question is how much Boren has hurt us," said a key Democratic leader who asked to remain anonymous. "Democrats from oil state and agricultural areas are reluctant to vote for an energy tax that is going to be scuttled in the Senate."

Other conservative and moderate Democrats have complained that the measure does too little to restrain spending on mandatory federal benefit programs, such as Medicare and welfare, and raises taxes by far more than it reduces federal outlays.

Revised estimates show that the bill is designed to reduce the deficit by $336.8 billion by raising $275.5 billion in taxes and cutting spending by $61.4 billion over the next five years. Of that amount, the proposed energy levy would account for $71.2 billion in revenue as it is phased in between now and 1998, when it would start to bring in almost $23 billion a year by taxing oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectric and nuclear power.

But House leaders said a higher gasoline tax would have even more difficulty winning approval.

"No one has come up with a credible alternative to the $72 billion in deficit reduction that the energy tax produces," Foley told reporters.

At the same time, work continued on a possible compromise to Clinton's package that would seek to contain spending on mandatory benefit programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, that have been outrunning budget estimates.

That proposed change would please conservative and moderate Democrats who have been advocating more attention to spending restraint on so-called entitlement programs. However, it would not go so far as to place a ceiling on these benefits that would cut them off to recipients once outlays reach a certain level.

Despite some lawmakers' disaffection, Clinton's program still attracted support from many of the 256 Democrats in the House. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), for example, praised the program as "an excellent package that would make significant progress on deficit reduction--there's no other proposal like it."

Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this story.

* HEALTH CARE BOARD: Clinton reportedly will propose an agency with broad powers over medical coverage. A10

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