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Clinton's budget vote victory fails to impress: Deep divisions over benefits of hard-won cost-cutting package

AS PRESIDENT Bill Clinton prepares for a 10-day sweep across the United States to sell his hard-won budget package to a doubting public, one question is rising through the political clamour and economic hot air that accompanied its passage through Congress: did he achieve anything significant?

The battle-weary President yesterday strode out on to the White House lawn to sign the bill into law, hailing its passage both as a crucial first step in a gridlock-busting assault on the growth of the federal deficit, and part of a programme of radical economic reforms.

But the US remains deeply divided over its worth. Has Mr Clinton, as some claim, at last reversed Reaganomics and grasped the wheel of the runaway economy in a geniune effort to steer it towards the brave new world of balanced budgets? Or did he spend days bullying and deal- making with dissident Democrats to achieve nothing more than a short-term, political victory in a bitterly split Congress. In the end, the bill passed by the slimmest possible margins - 218-216 in the House of Representatives, and with a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

The criticisms are many, but the main ones can be boiled down to a fairly short list. One: that the plan was far removed from the grand rhetoric of last November's election, in which Mr Clinton promised tax relief for middle-class families with children, as well as sweeping investment in jobs. Two: after being chopped about by Congress, it no longer constitutes much of a 'shared sacrifice' by the US public - the strategy that the President for so long insisted was the key to his battle against the federal budget deficit.

Three: the package's figures are suspect. Some dollars 46bn ( pounds 30.8bn) of its dollars 254bn spending cuts were mandated three years ago, and a further dollars 65bn are merely savings the administration hopes to make on the cost of servicing the national debt. Four: people are waking up to the fact it is only restrains the deficit's rate of increase (the deficit is projected to go up dollars 887bn in the next four years).

And five: it runs the risk of throttling the teetering revival of the US economy. The White House says the commitment to tackling the deficit will ensure low interest rates, which should stimulate the economy. But others are less sure. Some economists say the best way of cutting the deficit is through a more direct approach to promoting growth, quoting figures which show that each percentage point on the GNP adds dollars 100bn to the government's tax coffers.

Nor is at all clear that his difficult experience over the budget has done much to help Mr Clinton's future political battles - especially his plans to reform health care. As he signed the bill yesterday, he made yet another call for an end to partisan politics, and grumbled bitterly about 'five months in which the American people heard too little about the real debate and too much from those who oversimplify and often downright misrepresent the question of taxes and spending cuts'.

But it is questionable whether Congress will be any less partisan the next time around. There is some resentment among Democrats that the White House made no attempt to woo a handful of Republicans with a generally liberal voting record, who may have supported the plan. The fact that Mr Clinton was forced to strike deals with reluctant Democrats in order to secure their votes may increase their appetite to extract further concessions in the future.

Nor is the public likely to be easy to win around, especially if it becomes clear that the promised deficit reduction is not likely to materialise. The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll found that less than half the respondents believed the plan would live up to its promise to reduce the deficit by dollars 496bn over five years. Two out of three felt it taxes too much and cuts spending too little.

Mr Clinton's popularity polls are none too encouraging. Fifty one per cent gave him a negative rating, compared to a positive view by 45 per cent. His trip this week - through the Midwest, Colorado, California, Arkansas and Oklahoma - is therefore likely to be hard work. And, with rumblings about US policy over Bosnia, and nasty question- marks over the US presence in Somalia, the euphoria over his latest victory will soon evaporate - leaving him with a long and arduous summer.