Posted on April 12, 1993 in Washington Watch

President Clinton’s budget proposal passed through both the House and the Senate in record time; however, this was probably the last of Clinton’s easy victories.

This week the President ran into unexpected trouble in the Senate, and it is big trouble. At issue was the President’s proposed $16.3 billion stimulus package, the purpose of which is to provide a short-term boost to the economy by creating jobs in a number of sectors. While the slow but steady recovery of the nation’s economy has caused some to question the wisdom and necessity of this stimulus package (fearing that it might deepen the deficit and spur inflation), winning approval of the plan is important to the President and to the Democrats in Congress.

As Secretary of Labor Robert Reich pointed out this past week, the recovery has not yet produced an increase in employment. The unemployment rate has remained at 7% for the past sixteen months, which translates into more than 10 million unemployed. With another 6 million workers who have given up on finding a job, and another five million technically employed but, in fact, grossly underemployed, Democrats worry that the economic recovery cannot be maintained with 21 million wage earners in such hardship.

But there are also political reasons why the President wants his package to pass. Key components of the package include extending unemployment benefits (due to run out on April 22); a summer jobs program designed to employ 500,000 primarily inner-city youths; and an infrastructure rebuilding program that would give billions in increased aid to state and local governments to repair roads, bridges and waterways.

These are political commitments the President made during his campaign, and he intends to deliver on these promises to his supporters.

Furthermore, while some economists suggest that Clinton might let the recovery run its course to see if some jobs are created in the coming months, this is a risk that the President is unwilling to take for two reasons. First, the jobs might not be created and second, Clinton wants to put his political stamp on the recovery.

Right now Republicans are calling the recovery “Bush’s recovery”, which is something that Clinton cannot accept. He wants to push the recovery forward with a stimulus boost so that he will get credit for the recovery and increase his own political capital. As for the feared inflationary rise from an increase in spending, the President counters that a $16.3 billion increase does not pose a great risk to a $5.5 trillion economy.

The path seemed clear for the President’s plan, but Republicans put up a surprising and successful roadblock this week. The plan passed easily in the House of Representatives, but when it reached the Senate, Republican Senators decided to use a parliamentary tactic to stop it.

In order to bring a measure to a vote, the Senate must first pass a motion to limit or stop debate. Although passage of the package itself requires only a simple majority of 51 votes, a vote to end debate requires 60 votes to succeed. Because the Democrats have only a 57 to 43 advantage over the Republicans, the Republican team closed ranks and blocked the motion. This provided Republican an opportunity to “filibuster”, that is, to continue debate indefinitely until either the 60 votes can be found to close debate or until the Democrats and the White House agree to change the stimulus package in conformance with Republican objectives.

What first angered the Republicans and prompted their filibuster were comments and actions of Robert Byrd, a powerful Democratic Senator from West Virginia.

Early in the Senate’s consideration of the stimulus package, Byrd succeeded in passing a resolution that made it impossible for Republicans to offer any amendments to the package. One Republican Senator commented, “We’re being steamrolled and pushed around, and we don’t like being treated this way.” Byrd responded by calling the Republicans “obstructionists” and warned that if they wanted a war, “they’d get one.”

Byrd later relented and removed his block on Republican amendments. The Democrats then quickly voted down 12 Republican efforts to change the package, and this made the Republicans furious. It was just another game of power politics, and one that hadn’t been played in 12 years: the majority party (Democrats) working with a President of their own party to pass a package, and the minority party (Republicans) wanting to remind the majority that they were still a force that had to be contended with. The result of this game was the filibuster.

In the first vote to close debate so that the Senate could proceed to a vote on the stimulus package, the Democrats failed to muster the required 60 votes. In fact, the vote was 55 to 43, with tow Democrats (Krueger of Texas and Shelby of Alabama) actually voting with the Republicans. (I will write on the significance of these two Democrats in next week’s column.) The next vote to close debate was 52 for closure and 37 against.

At this point the Republicans were heady with victory. They realized their new power and knew that they could block the President’s program indefinitely. The third vote was 49 to 29, at which point the Democrats realized that they could not win and so they surrendered by adjourning the Senate until April 20.

During the next two weeks both Democrats and Republicans will take their cases before the voters, hoping to build public support for their positions. The line in the sand has been drawn.

The White House issued its first volley the day the senate adjourned, describing the Republicans as “a very small group of people with very high paying jobs who are denying job opportunities to millions of unemployed Americans.”

The President will undoubtedly use television and personal appearances to find enough support to convince five Senators to join his side. Meanwhile, Republicans will do their best to insure against losing any of their 43 votes.

What is interesting about the issue at this point is that the both sides seem to have public opinion with them. White House polls show that most Americans supporting the President’s plan, with an even higher percentage supporting his jobs creation proposals. On the other hand, Republicans can show that when voters are asked if they are willing to pay more taxes or see the deficit increase to pay for these new programs, the reaction is strongly negative.

For example, in a recent Republican poll, voters supported the President’s plan by a margin of 54% to 33%. But when asked if they supported the new spending increases needed to make the plan work, voters shift to 23% in favor to 68% opposed. The race is now on to see which side will be able to define the President’s program in the minds of the voters—Republicans or Democrats.

One thing is clear. If the President and the Congressional Democrats don’t succeed in the next two weeks in gaining enough public support to bring about five defections from the opposing camp, they will have to compromise. Because the sides seem well entrenched in their respective positions, the best question seems to be: how much will Clinton and the Democrats have to compromise.

Some Republicans may be willing to give the President between $7-9 billion (for extending unemployment benefits and summer jobs), but no more. Some Republicans are even willing to give the whole $16.3 billion if the White House will offset this expenditure by an additional $16.3 billion in spending cuts—something which until now the White House has been unable and unwilling to do.

Unless he can find a way to win an outright victory, which at the moment seems unlikely, the President will have to calculate how much he must give in order to win over the five votes needed to close debate so that his stimulus package can be passed.

Something else that seems clear at this point is that the President has lost important momentum. The White House appears to have been weakened by this episode.

This is particularly ominous because until this point the Administration’s record of victories had been impressive:
· passing a federal budget in record time;
· passing the Family and Medical Leave law;
· announcing a plan to reduce the credit shortage affecting small businesses and farms, some of which has already been put into effect;
· cutting the White House staff by 25% effective on October 1, 1993, and cutting billions of dollars in waste an inefficiency in other areas of the federal government;
· and imposing strong new ethics standards and requirements for federal officials.

But now, on a program that the Administration had been hoping to make a centerpiece of the Clinton economic program, they have been stalled. The President must find a way to salvage at least a part of his package and win at least a partial victory, or else face his first big loss—a loss he can ill-afford.

With health care reform coming up, and campaign finance reform after that, the President will need all the momentum he can get. Both of those issues will be very difficult to win any more than a symbolic victory—but the voters showed in the last election that they are impatient with symbolism. They want genuine reform, and are likely to hold Clinton accountable for bringing it about because he made these two issues so important in his campaign.

The stakes for Clinton and his Democratic allies are high. A loss on the stimulus program could rob them of the momentum they need to achieve other important legislative goals. And looming over their shoulders is the shadow of the 1994 elections, in which a lot of Democrats are on the line. Too many Democratic losses could make life very unpleasant for Clinton between ‘94 and ‘96, and in turn severely hurt his own chances.

This sets the stage for next week’s column, and shows that American politics can be quite complex and interesting even in a non-election year.

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