Democrats pressed to rescue Clinton budget: White House cautiously confident of victory on President's day of reckoning

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The Independent Online
AFTER A marathon day of public debate and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, the House of Representatives last night finally adopted President Clinton's 5-year deficit-reduction programme, granting him a much- needed political boost.

On what was surely the most critical day of Mr Clinton's struggling presidency so far, the House in the end came down in favour of the bill by xxx votes to xxx, comfortably clear of the simple majority required of 218. A threatened rebellion by conservative Democrats largely evaporated.

Right until the end, however, there had been no certainty that larger numbers of Democrats were not ready to sink the programme. Had that happened, the consequences for Mr Clinton, already wounded by a stream of political blunders committed by the White House, would have been devastating.

The loyalty of conservative Democrats was largely won back by an eleventh-hour compromise reached with the White House on toughening the spending reduction provisions of the bill. All through yesterday, the President and almost all key members of his cabinet continued lobbying waverers on the telephone and in the corridors of Congress.

Passage in the House does not guarantee the package's survival, however. It still faces debate in the Senate, where prospects for its adoption are, if anything, more shaky still. The final vote in the Senate is not expected for another three or four weeks. The package, the President's personal prescription for righting the economy, would mark one of the biggest tax increases in American history. It is that simple fact that was making it so hard for many Democrats to come on side.

It calls for dollars 250bn ( pounds 160bn) in tax increases over the next five years to be levied on the very wealthy, on corporations and also by way of a general energy tax. Also included are an array of spending cuts amounting to dollars 90bn. Later this year, the White House promises to prune spending by another dollars 140bn.

Doubts about the package among many Democrats centred on concern that it depends too little on spending cuts and too much on tax increases. The energy tax has incurred the strongest objections, especially from Democrats representing oil-producing states like Texas and Oklahoma.

To appease the conservative rebels, the President agreed to set annual ceilings on federal spending on social benefit programmes, such as Medicaid. If those limits are broken, the White House would be bound to inform the Congress which in turn would have to take action to reverse the overspending.

Commenting on the compromise earlier yesterdayt, Mr Clinton said it would 'force us every year to make the budget cuts that we say we're making in this five-year budget. We've got to have some discipline in this budget so that if we tell people we're going to make the cuts, we'll do it'.

As part of a renewed effort to contain the fall-out of recent disasters such as the botched firing of the White House travel office and his dollars 200 haircut, Mr Clinton yesterday answered questions from tourists on the South Lawn live on CBS breakfast television. 'When I get up in the morning, I say a little prayer that I won't make any stupid little mistakes and that I'll do right by Americans today,' he at one point commented.

There is continued speculation that if Mr Clinton is able to secure the House vote, he will move quickly to announce a further shake-up of his senior White House staff.

With a rebellion of conservative Democrats partially quelled, the House of Representatives appeared poised last night to give its approval to President Bill Clinton's deficit- reduction bill, offering him a much- needed political boost.

On the most critical day of Mr Clinton's struggling presidency so far, Democratic leaders were tentatively predicting that a compromise struck between the White House and conservative members in the small hours of the morning would just assure a slim majority in favour of the plan.

With no one certain of the outcome until the final vote was taken, however, the atmosphere in Washington was one of nervous anticipation. Should the package fall, the consequences for Mr Clinton, already wounded by a stream of political blunders committed by the White House, would be devastating.

At the start of the House session, Democratic leaders remained sure only of 210 votes in favour of the package, when the minimum required was 218. The Democrats have a majority of 256, but at least a handful among them were still expected to defect to the Republicans in opposing the bill. The package, the President's personal prescription for righting the economy, would mark one of the biggest tax increases in American history. It is this that is making it so hard for many Democrats, particularly those who are serving in Congress for the first time, to come on side.

It calls for dollars 250bn ( pounds 167bn) in tax increases over the next five years to be levied on the very wealthy, on corporations and also by way of a general energy tax. Also included are an array of spending cuts amounting to dollars 90bn. Doubts about the package among many Democrats centre on concern that it depends too little on spending cuts and too much on tax increases. The energy tax has incurred strong objections, especially from Democrats representing oil-producing states such as Texas and Oklahoma.

Passage in the House would not guarantee the package's survival, however. It would still face debate in the Senate, where prospects for its adoption are, if anything, more shaky still. The final vote in the Senate would probably not come for another two weeks.

To appease the conservative rebels, the President agreed to set annual ceilings on federal spending on social benefit programmes, such as Medicaid. If those limits are broken, the White House would be bound to inform the Congress which in turn would have to take action to reverse the overspending.

Commenting on the compromise, Mr Clinton said it would 'force us every year to make the budget cuts that we say we're making in this five-year budget. We've got to have some discipline in this budget so that if we tell people we're going to make the cuts, we'll do it.'

As part of a renewed effort to contain the fall-out of recent disasters such as the botched firing of the White House travel office and his dollars 200 haircut, Mr Clinton yesterday answered questions from tourists on the South Lawn live on CBS breakfast television. 'When I get up in the morning, I say a little prayer that I won't make any stupid little mistakes and that I'll do right by Americans today,' he commented.

There is speculation that if Mr Clinton can secure the House vote, he will announce a further shake-up of his senior White House staff. He is expected to bring in some old Democrat hands to support his beleaguered Chief of Staff, Thomas McClarty.

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