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Dust-Up in the West


LAST week President Clinton felt the ire of Western senators and representatives who stake their tenure in office on federal subsidies for their constituents in the form of very low fees, or no fees, for cattle grazing, mineral mining, timber cutting, and water rights on public lands.

Earlier, Mr. Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt had announced a change: The fees were going up, and the charges would be reflected in the federal budget. Western members of Congress quickly expressed their wrath, and the higher fees were removed from the budget.

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Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana described the Western lawmakers' at least temporary victory as "just teamwork, basically."

But Sen. Ben Campbell (D) of Colorado was more blunt, indicating that some Western members of Congress might not have approved a federal budget with the Clinton-Babbitt public lands provisions in it.

The president and Mr. Babbitt will manage some face-saving moves. The interior secretary can raise some fees and establish some standards through administrative action. Environmentalists may be partially placated.

But what of the damage to the president's image? Environmentalists and others are likely to see the public lands retreat as a sign of uncertainty, if not weakness.

And many Americans might wonder whether the president will waver on other tough choices - for example, a possible slowdown of the pace of work on the costly Supercollider project. The project is backed by powerful House and Senate members from Louisiana and Texas, and by Clinton's secretary of the Treasury, former United States Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.

The president, of course, can't please everyone.

But to maintain the obvious esteem many Americans have for him, he will have to prove his worthiness for the office every day.

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