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Louisiana's Most Popular Politician Meets Harsh Words Back Home on Budget Vote

THE mother and daughter team of Joan and Shannon Smith have a dream that could turn out to be United States Sen. John Breaux's worst nightmare: They want to see him recalled and removed from the senate seat he has held since 1986 because of the vote he cast earlier this month in support of President Clinton's controversial deficit-reduction package.

Never mind that recalling any elected federal official can't be done by petitions alone or that Senator Breaux (D) has been for nearly a decade Louisiana's most popular politician - winning reelection in 1992 by more than 73 percent of the vote. The Smiths say they are tired of Breaux's "lack of respect for us voters back home," adding that the senator's support of the Clinton package, which narrowly passed in the Senate on a 51-to-50 vote, is the last straw.

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"Breaux just decided he was going to ignore the wishes of the vast majority of people in his own state," said Shannon Smith, a nursing student. "All of the polls here showed the people were against this proposal, but he voted for it anyway, like none of us even mattered. Now we want to show him just how we feel about that."

Mother Joan, who helps run the family air-conditioning business, is equally angry: "I've had calls from dozens of people who want to let politicians like Breaux know we're not going to forget about this vote," she said. "He came right out and said he was going against the majority on this because he felt he knew better what was good for us, and that's what made me mad the most."

Although political observers here believe Breaux, who is not up for reelection until 1998 and still has an overall positive job-performance rating, will more than likely weather angry fallout over his vote on the Clinton package, the fact that the reaction has been so swift and strong should serve as a warning, especially for those few Southern senators - only eight of 22 representing Old Confederacy states - who supported the Clinton bill.

"Basically, the South as a region is the most antitax region in the country," said Bernie Pinsonat, a partner in the Southern Media and Opinion Research polling firm in Baton Rouge, La. "And whether the senators who supported Mr. Clinton come up for reelection next year or in 1994 or in 1996, you can be sure that the major component of their opponent's campaign will be that they voted for one of the biggest tax bills in history."

Currently, Democrats hold 56 of the Senate's 100 seats. Even though only one of the eight Southern senators supporting the Clinton package - Jim Sasser (D) of Tennessee - is up for reelection next year, three more will have to face the voters when Clinton runs for reelection (Democrats David Pryor of Arkansas, Howell Heflin of Alabama, and Harlan Mathews of Tennessee).

"And you can bet that every one of them is nervously looking over his shoulder, watching his polling as it goes down and down," continued Mr. Pinsonat. "Already Breaux's negatives have risen from the mid-teens to the mid-30s, which isn't very good."

In a fence-mending visit to Louisiana last week, Breaux defended his budget vote, noting that he was one of two senators (the other one being David Boren [D] of Oklahoma) who worked to change the package, upping spending cuts and dropping a Btu tax that was anathema to Louisiana voters.

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"I didn't vote for this package because it's perfect," Breaux said, "because it's not. I didn't vote for it because I like it, because I don't. But I voted for it because I think it's the first step in a very tough and dangerous journey that we're going to have to make toward getting our economic future in order."

Breaux acknowledged that the majority of calls his office received on the Clinton budget were in opposition to it. His office states that Breaux heard from more than 1,000 constituents in a two-day period leading up to the vote, but he added: "I don't think any job is worth its salt in politics if we have to do the wrong thing to get reelected or do a wrong thing just because we're concerned about the polls. We are elected to make tough decisions, decisions that sometimes people don't like."

Although the five years between now and when Breaux must face reelection will give him plenty of time to repair any damage from this summer's divisive budget politics, some political experts here say he could easily win reelection even if the election were held today.

"John Breaux plays his politics very well," says Susan Howell, a pollster at the University of New Orleans. "He is as secure as you can be and still be an elected official."

Noting that Louisiana is historically a populist Democratic state with a traditional fondness for large government and one of the few Southern states Clinton carried in last year's presidential election, Ms. Howell continued: "It really comes down to making a case for yourself, of explaining why you voted the way you did on a controversial matter. And that would apply to any Southern senator who supported the president. As for Breaux, he has long been regarded as one of the most effective legislators Lou isiana has in Washington, and so far that reputation has not been diminished."

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