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Sen. Boren Holds Key Vote on Clinton Economic Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sen. David L. Boren will happily admit to being the biggest thorn in President Clinton’s right side.

“Right now,” he says, “I am perfectly at peace with my position.”

By virtue of his seat on the Senate Finance Committee, the Oklahoma Democrat holds the vote that could kill Clinton’s economic program, and he believes he can use his extraordinary leverage to help redirect a presidency that has veered badly off course.

The issue at hand is Clinton’s $496-billion deficit reduction package, which the House approved by a six-vote margin Thursday night. Unless Clinton adds significant new spending cuts and revamps or eliminates his proposed broad-based energy tax, Boren has said he will vote against the entire bill.

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The warnings have not gone unheeded. White House and Senate sources said Friday that Clinton had decided to abandon most elements of his proposed energy tax and accept an 8-cent-per-gallon gasoline-tax increase in its place in hopes of winning Senate approval of the bill.

What makes Boren’s opposition more than a passing concern is the fact that he is not just any senator. He holds one of 11 Democratic seats on the 20-member Finance Committee, where Clinton’s economic plan faces its next crucial test and where the Democratic majority is so tenuous that a single defection could sink the entire package.

Nor is Boren’s vote the only potential torpedo. Also on the panel is Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), Clinton’s longtime political ally and one of the earliest backers of his presidential campaign. He, too, has served notice that he will not support the plan unless it undergoes major revisions.

Both senators insisted in interviews this week that their struggle goes far beyond their objections to an energy tax that could hurt industries in their states. They see it as nothing less than a war with the left for the soul of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

“It is very odd that I am being branded as a renegade Democrat for embracing the same centrist course that the President advocated in the campaign,” Boren said.

“He really has to govern as he campaigned--as a mainstream moderate,” Breaux said. “I’m willing to do everything I can to help him reach that goal of being a new Democrat, a mainstream Democrat, because that’s where the future of this party and this country lies.”

All sides agree that Boren and Breaux will be the senators to watch over the next three weeks, as the legislation implementing the President’s deficit-reduction plan begins its difficult journey through the Senate.

Indeed, Boren and Breaux have come to personify a growing disenchantment felt by many moderate Democrats toward a presidential agenda that they believe is overloaded with tax increases and new federal initiatives. Both senators say their misgivings are widely shared by their colleagues in Congress.

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And even if Clinton manages to convert one or both of these skeptics to his cause, the doubts that they are expressing may continue to trouble millions of American voters who fear that the new kind of Democrat they sent to Washington may turn out to be an old-fashioned tax-and-spender after all.

“After you become President, the normal pressures from the left become very active and very visible,” Breaux said. “People who really didn’t support Bill Clinton in the primaries at all now feel that since he is a Democratic President, he has to follow the same rules that old-style Democrats were used to.”

Yet there is a vast difference in the approaches that the two senators have taken in their joint quest.

Boren has advanced his own alternative budget plan, one that would make significant cuts in social programs and eliminates the energy tax altogether. He has enlisted a powerful Democratic ally in Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He also can make a claim to bipartisanship, with the endorsements of two moderate Republicans, Sens. William S. Cohen of Maine and John C. Danforth of Missouri.

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Yet critics say Boren’s alternative is not all that he has claimed. “It isn’t obvious to me that it’s more moderate to reduce benefits on Social Security and Medicare recipients and shift the tax burden,” said Thomas Mann, a political analyst with the Brookings Institution. “He’s really engaged in a game of chicken now. His colleagues think it’s self-indulgence.”

Some of them, in fact, see it as outright betrayal. They note that Boren had been enthusiastic about the President’s economic plan in the weeks after it was announced, telling reporters in February that it was “the best, most promising budget I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress.”

Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has said that Boren promised Clinton that his would not be the vote that destroyed the economic plan. Boren concedes he made that statement, but says it was not “a blank check.”

Breaux has yet to reveal his hand. Although he has publicly expressed reservations about the President’s package since its unveiling, he refused to endorse Boren’s proposal and is negotiating with the White House to put forward yet another alternative.

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“I’m hoping that people who are strongly supportive of David’s position, knowing that it doesn’t have the votes to pass, will come to something that is less than his, but more than the President’s,” he said.

That appears to be the direction in which the White House may be heading. Breaux said he is willing to retain a gasoline tax of around 8 cents a gallon, and is looking for additional spending cuts.

Moynihan said he is confident he can ultimately win over the two Democrats, and indicated he is willing to make at least some modifications to the President’s plan. And the committee vote is still three weeks away, which might as well be a lifetime in Congress, where deals generally do not come together until the eleventh hour.

Boren and Breaux had earlier tried to salvage the President’s ill-fated economic stimulus bill by asking the White House to accept an arrangement under which some of the spending would be contingent on deficit reduction. Clinton refused--a decision that White House officials now concede cost them any chance of prevailing.

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Now, Boren said, “they’re doing it again, and I’m really worried about it. . . . I really do think this is a battle for the future of this presidency and the future of the party. We stand a chance of losing the (Democratic control of the) Senate in two years, and I think his presidency will come unglued.”

Boren likes to remind the White House that this is but one fight of many they will be making together over the next four or eight years. Indeed, all week long, Boren has been making a marathon appearance on the Senate floor as manager of the Administration’s campaign finance legislation.

But when he called the White House to offer an update on its prospects and hash over legislative strategy, it was clear that the senior official on the other end of the line was not quite sure to whom he was speaking:

“Is this the Good Boren or the Bad Boren calling?” he asked.

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Profile: David L. Boren

Here is background on the Oklahoma Democrat:

* Age: 52

* Education: Bachelor’s degree from Yale, 1963; master’s from Oxford (Rhodes scholar), 1965; law degree from Oklahoma College of Law, 1968.

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* Career: Oklahoma House member, 1967-75; Oklahoma governor, 1975-79; elected to U.S. Senate in 1978.

Source: Congressional Directory


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