Energy tax revolt threatens to ground the Clinton presidency: Airport fiasco puts the lid on an embarrassing week for the White House

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AN EMBARRASSING week for President Bill Clinton ended on Saturday with the new White House travel department chartering a press plane that broke down before take-off.

The delay to the flight was an aptly inept finale to the affair which started with the peremptory sacking of all seven officials in the White House travel office and concluded with the removal, after just 48 hours, of the Arkansas company chosen to replace them amid a storm of accusations of nepotism and cronyism.

But the aircraft fiasco and the earlier uproar over Mr Clinton's dollars 200 haircut by a Hollywood stylist, which held up traffic at Los Angeles airport for an hour last Tuesday, will pale beside his difficulties if he fails to quell the revolt in his own party over the dollars 71bn ( pounds 45.8bn) energy tax, which is at the heart of his dollars 500bn deficit reduction plan, now before Congress.

The fate of the package, by common consent here, will make or break the Clinton presidency. A Democrat senator on the Finance Committee, David Boren, of Oklahoma, is demanding more spending cuts instead of the energy tax; if he refuses to accept the package in its present form, then the Democrats' 11 to 9 majority on the panel will disappear.

Trouble is brewing on other fronts too. In the House of Representatives, enough Democrats have misgivings about the tax to jeopardise the party's majority of 80 when a floor vote is taken, probably later this week. In the full Senate the prospects are even murkier. Apart from Mr Boren, five other Democrats threaten to break ranks.

Faced with an uprising that could cripple his presidency, the usually emollient Mr Clinton has hit back with unaccustomed anger. In his regular radio address on Saturday, he accused Mr Boren and his sympathisers of pandering to wealthy special interests, and the 'Big Oil Lobby'. But his trip to staunchly anti-tax New Hampshire suggested that some form of compromise with Mr Boren may be essential. 'No more taxes, we're sick of taxes,' one heckler told him, brushing aside Mr Clinton's attempt to blame the Republicans for increasing the deficit: 'You're a liar; why don't you go back to Arkansas?'

And along the way, there were other reminders of the week's smaller travails. 'Your dollars 200 haircut, I love it,' cooed one woman to a stony-faced President. Later he passed a barber's shop with a blunt sign in the window: 'Mr President, our haircuts cost dollars 12.' Those words, and the barrage of criticism on yesterday's television talk- shows, suggest that Mr Clinton's image, as well as his tax plans, is in urgent need of repair.

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