Clinton fuels party rift on deficit-cutting plan

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton's manoeuvring to secure Capitol Hill approval for his deficit-cutting economic package has dragged him into a new and messy confrontation - this time between the two wings of his party, pitting more liberal House Democrats against the conservative-dominated Democratic majority in the Senate.

Bowing to the latter's unrelenting opposition, Mr Clinton has now formally dropped his original plan for a broadly-based BTU energy tax that would have taxed all types of fuel according to their heat content. But the result thus far has merely been to show the difficulties a weak President faces to win a big legislative battle, even when his party theoretically controls both houses of Congress.

Yesterday the Senate Finance Committee was examining a host of options to find the money and meet Mr Clinton's goal of cutting the deficit by dollars 500bn (pounds 340bn) over five years. They range from a straight petrol tax to more complex transport and electricity taxes, coupled with deeper cuts in welfare entitlements. All are favoured by conservative Senate Democrats. But for many of their House counterparts, they are akin to betrayal.

Under intense pressure to spare the President a humiliating defeat, enough of them swallowed their doubts last month to give risky backing to the unpopular BTU tax and permit the package a hair's breadth 219-213 victory on the House floor. Now that tax has been withdrawn to appease the Senate. The backlash over what seems a sacrifice for nothing has been furious, especially within the black constituency.

The 37-strong group of black Democrats in the House pulled out of a meeting yesterday with the President. The black congressmen, said their chairman, Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, would not tolerate 'being seen but not heard'. The package could not be passed without their backing.

Once again, the episode is taken as proof of the President's tendency to give in to pressure and his failure to present a forceful case to the country.

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