Posted on April 19, 1993 in Washington Watch

During votes in the Senate on President Clinton’s budget proposal and economic stimulus program, two Democratic Senators opposed the President. In different ways, they indicate trouble for Clinton.

The most outspoken of Clinton’s two Democratic critics is Richard Shelby, a conservative Senator from Alabama. As a fellow Southerner, he might have appeared to be a natural ally for a President from Arkansas. After winning a close election in 1986, Shelby won reelection in 1992 by a substantial margin. He is, therefore, secure in the beginning of his second term in the Senate. Many observers thought that this security might enable the Alabama Senator to be a strong supporter of Clinton’s program.

Shelby’s opposition to President Clinton’s program, then, surprised his fellow Democrats.

When asked for a comment on Clinton’s proposals, Shelby said, “I believe that this budget is a dangerous budget…dangerous to the economy. It is going to be heavy on taxes and light on [spending] cuts. I hope it will not be like the 1990 [Bush] agreement. But I think that it looks like it, walks like it, and talks like it.” These are harsh words from a Democratic Senator to the head of his party.

If Shelby’s comments were unexpected, however, so was Clinton’s swift and equally harsh response.

The President punished the Senator by ordering the transfer of an important defense installation out of Alabama, which could cost the state jobs and income, and did cost Shelby an important political prize. Analysts have suggested that Clinton’s principal motive was not to change Shelby’s vote. Rather, the President wanted to make an example of Shelby to stop any other Democratic Senators who might have been tempted to abandon his plan.

This period of punishment might be difficult for Shelby, but he’s making the best of it. He has stiffened his opposition to the President, and has continued to vote with the Republicans. As a result, he has become something of a hero back in Alabama. Newspapers across the state have criticized Clinton and supported Shelby. A recent poll in Alabama showed Shelby’s favorability rating at 67%. By contrast, Shelby’s Alabama Democratic colleague in the Senate, Howell Heflin—who supports Clinton—has a 57% favorability rating; and President Clinton’s rating is only 52%.

This Clinton-Shelby problem points to a larger political problem facing the President. In winning his reelection by such a large margin in 1992, Shelby actually won many more votes in Alabama than Clinton did. After the election, analysts suggested that Democratic members of Congress in Shelby’s position could pose a problem for Clinton because they owed him nothing politically. The recent polls seem to support this theory, and underscore the importance of Clinton’s swift reaction: if Shelby emerges unscathed after opposing the President, more Democratic Senators may do the same.

If Shelby is a problem for Clinton, however, so is first-year Texas Senator Bob Krueger, the other Democrat who has consistently voted against the Clinton plan. In some ways, the Krueger situation is more indicative of the serous problem facing Clinton in 1994 than the one surrounding Shelby.

Krueger was just appointed a few months ago to fill the vacancy created by Lloyd Bentsen’s confirmation as Secretary of the Treasury. Krueger’s appointment was only temporary, however; and in order to hold on to the post he must win a special election which will be held on May 1st.

This special election is one of five which will be held this spring to fill vacant seats: four in the House of Representatives (to fill seats left by three Democratic members who took Cabinet posts in the new Administration and one to fill the seat of a retiring Republican) in addition to the Texas Senate race. Democrats and Republicans are campaigning furiously for these five seats because they are seen as an early test of the President’s ability to maintain Democratic control of the Congress in 1994.

The troubling note for Clinton is that, of the nine leading Democratic contenders for these five special elections, only one supports the President’s economic program. Republicans are saying that this is a sign that Democrats running for office must run away from the President, and therefore that Democrats will not run as “Clinton Democrats” in 1994 when all 435 House seats and 34 Senate seats will be contested.

Krueger is a case study of this phenomenon. He’s running in Texas, Ross Perot’s home state, where Clinton’s favorability rating is a low 27%. When Krueger was challenged by one of his Republican opponents on the “tax and spend” philosophy of the Democratic President, Krueger didn’t deny the charge or defend Clinton. Instead, he backed away from the President and voted with the Republicans in the Senate against Clinton’s economic package.

So far, Clinton has been able to maintain support from 55 of the 57 Democratic Senators, but his advisors are not certain how long this support will last. They feel that Clinton was elected to do a tough job: to undo the “Reagan revolution”, reform health care and campaign financing, and to make the nation face up to tough choices about its future needs. What worries some in the Administration is that Clinton was elected with only 43% of the vote, less than most successful Congressional candidates received; and thus he cannot use a claim of political popularity to bolster his program. In this sense, the Krueger phenomenon may be the beginning of a nightmare.

In order to cure these national ills, Clinton is offering bitter medicine—which Congress must swallow—if his program for reform is to succeed. But the longer it takes and the closer it gets to the 1994 elections, the more difficult it will be for Congress to support Clinton’s programs.

Already the President has had to compromise on a number of programs in order to maintain his congressional support. Because passage of his economic program is his top priority, Clinton has either watered down or outright abandoned a number of other programs and initiatives that might have weakened support for his economic package.

For example, when the issue of lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military came up early in the Administration, Clinton made an initial hard push to keep a campaign promise. But when he ran into opposition in the Senate (particularly from Sam Nunn, the influential Democratic Senator from Georgia), the President sought and won a six month delay on ending the ban. Though he is still committed to lifting the ban, he did not want the divisive issue to interfere with passage of his economic plan.

Another interesting and telling example of the President’s eagerness to avoid any conflict which might cost him votes on the economic package came up last week. Part of the announced budget proposal called for raising an additional $1 billion in revenue by increasing fees for private companies that graze livestock or extract resources from federally-owned land. Five Democratic Senators, all from Western states that would have been heavily affected by the proposed increase in fees approached the White House and expressed their strong reservations about the plan. Out of concern that he might lose these five votes in the Senate, Clinton quickly dropped the proposed increase in fees.

The pattern of White House behavior is becoming clear. The President is convinced that he must win passage of the economic program first, so everything else is secondary. He compromises where he feels he can’t win. Whatever threatens to hurt the chance of passing his economic program he delays consideration of or abandons, at least for now.

This is a very political President who is striving to build a majority in order to pass his program. It’s a hard program to sell, but he is committed to it and knows that it must be won quickly. If too much time passes, he knows that political forces over which he has little control will weaken his momentum and threaten both his agenda and his chances for reelection. But if he can win, he gains political strength that will help him get over the next hurdles that his Administration will soon face.

On April 20 the Congressional recess will end and the battle in the Senate will resume. Between now and then the President will be pushing hard to sell his program, and to convince a few more Senators to support it. This is a battle Clinton cannot afford to lose. He may be forced to compromise, but he will attempt to salvage at least enough of his original program to allow him to make a plausible claim of victory.

One final note: it is important to understand Clinton’s focus on the economy in order to understand his caution in foreign policy.

After his poor performance in the 1990 budget negotiations, former President Bush regained the mantle of Presidential authority only through his leadership in the Gulf War. That leadership role turned out to have a very short shelf-life, however; and the nagging problem of the economy became Bush’s Achilles’ heel and ultimately brought down his presidency.

While it may appear to some to be a questionable approach, Clinton wants to win the domestic leadership battle before making any bold foreign policy moves. This Administration is taking action in a number of foreign policy areas, but the President knows that he must have the nation firmly behind him as a leader at home before it will accept him as an international leader. As Clinton himself put it during the campaign, “Strength abroad begins with strength at home.” He meant that line in reference to the United States, but it applies equally well to the U.S. President.

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