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Schmidt's party in trouble as Liberals sap coalition

The Liberals have danced one step closer to breaking up the Social Democratic-Liberal coalition and returning West Germany to a conservative chancellor after 13 years.

But an important feature of the whole minuet involves not saying so out loud.

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Thus, when the Hesse Free Democratic (Liberal) Party voted June 17 to ditch the last remaining state coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals, federal Liberal leaders ritually proclaimed the decision would have no impact on federal politics.

It really does, of course. And everyone in Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's beleaguered and rather gloomy government knows it.

As public opinion polls (and local elections) have shifted more and more away from the swing party, the Liberals have more and more openly flirted with the idea of shifting back to a coalition with the conservative sister parties of the Christian Democratic Union (in northern and western West Germany) and the Christian Social Union (in Bavaria).

If the Liberals do so (and if all the party's members of Parliament go along - a big if), this would give an immediate majority to a conservative-Liberal coalition and put the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the chancellery.

The shift of the Hesse Liberals in deciding how to run in next September's state election is a significant straw in the wind - and not only because Hesse was the last state to emulate the federal Social Democratic-Liberal coalition. The state Christian Democratic Party that the Hesse Liberals have now allied themselves with for next fall is led by a person who is well to the right of the CDU, Alfred Dregger.

This particular marriage especially irks the Social Democrats at the federal level and makes them less willing to compromise with Liberal demands on joint programs.

This mood is a major factor right now, because the Social Democrats and Liberals have to hammer out a common budget by July 7. The Social Democrats want more spending to create jobs at a time when the number of unemployed stands at 1 .7 million. The classically noninterventionist Liberals until now have opposed this. In previous tough bargaining over the budget the Liberals have held the upper hand because of their power to topple the government.

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The Liberals' shift in Hesse could engender serious practical problems for the federal coalition because of the Bundesrat's (upper house's) authority to veto legislation by a two-thirds vote. A conservative-Liberal coalition victory next September in Hesse would give that two-thirds majority to the conservatives in the Bundesrat.

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