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Budget Vote Will Be Test For Clinton

Presidency may hang on quelling rebellion by moderate Democrats

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PRESIDENT Clinton's drive to put a majority coalition back together behind his economic plan this week is the most difficult and politically treacherous task he has faced yet.

A defeat now would knock out the centerpiece of his agenda as president. It could so weaken his ability to lead, says one moderate Democrat, that "it could mean a couple years of Congress-led government." That means, the Democrat adds, a Congress that produces little.

Pulling off a victory now, on the other hand, would "replenish his political strength" and greatly improve his position for introducing his health-care plan, says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

The issue at hand that threatens to unravel Mr. Clinton's budget is the strong rejection last Thursday by key Senate Democrats of his energy tax proposal. If these senators, led by David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, can block the energy tax, that leaves Clinton with $72 billion over five years to make up in some other way to reach his deficit-cutting targets.

But the more basic problem for Clinton is that Republican arguments that his program is tax-heavy have so far won the battle for public opinion.

The moderate-to-conservative Democrats who have broken ranks in Congress reflect a public disillusion with Clinton that is especially concentrated among the 19 percent of voters that backed Ross Perot in the 1992 election. (Prospects for compromise, Page 2.)

In the modern presidency, says Democratic strategist Greg Schneiders, "your power, your leverage, is in nearly direct proportion to your poll numbers." Once Clinton's approval fell below 50 percent, he notes, it was "open season."

The challenge now, Mr. Schneiders says is, "Can the president turn the public against his opponents?"

To accomplish that, Clinton is getting several different kinds of advice. All of them are strategies for moving the debate over his budget and economic plan out from under the cloud of taxes.

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