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Democrats Warily Embrace Clinton Economic Package

By Karen Tumulty and William J. Eaton
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

Democrats in Congress gave President Clinton's economic package a wary embrace Thursday, but many expressed concern that the president did not go far enough in cutting spending to reduce the deficit.

With initial public opinion running strongly in favor of the plan, Democratic leaders basked in the rosy afterglow of Clinton's speech Wednesday night, and expressed confidence that they would be able to shepherd his economic package relatively intact through the legislative gantlet.

"The thrust of this program will be enacted," predicted House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash. "I'm not saying every single line of the president's recommended program is going to be enacted, but then I hope we have alternatives that reach the same goal."

Yet some Democrats, facing a relentless chorus of Republican criticism, complained that Clinton had not cut spending enough.

Despite the characterization of Clinton as a new kind of Democrat, they worried that he had left their party vulnerable to the old tax-and-spend accusations that have drawn political blood in the past. Once the details of the package become clear, some said, early support may evaporate quickly.

"I think it's selling right now, but it's selling on the basis of the rhetoric," said Rep. Pete Geren, D-Texas, who complained that Clinton had "gone to bat and chosen to hit a double, rather than a home run."

Geren said he and other conservatives were trying to put together a package of additional spending reductions, but added that it was unlikely that they could convince a majority of lawmakers to go beyond the "high water mark" set by the president.

Yet there was sentiment for further cuts among liberals as well. "I hope we don't stop here," Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson, D-Calif., said. "We're not asking an awful lot from most Americans."

Despite any such concerns, Democrats were buoyed by a pair of public opinion polls showing Americans overwhelmingly backed Clinton's package. An ABC News poll said 74 percent of Americans approved of his proposals and 18 percent disapproved. A similar survey by CNN and USA Today found 79 percent of Americans supporting the plan.

The polls were taken shortly after Clinton's speech, however, before most Americans were exposed to varying opinions and evaluations of the package.

The speech also set off an avalanche of phone calls to Washington. In the hour following Clinton's speech, roughly 400,000 calls were made in one hour into Washington over American Telephone & Telegraph Co. long distance lines, a spokesman said, about 14 times more than during the same hour on the previous night.

The Capitol switchboard registered 126,698 calls over a 12-hour period through noon Thursday, compared to 84,000 on an average day. A breakdown of calls was not available.

The White House also received a huge volume of calls, but Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers provided few specifics.

Once the economic package arrives in Congress, Democratic leaders believe their best strategy will be to pass it in two parts, scheduling an early -- and relatively easy -- vote on the portion of it that will funnel billions of dollars in new spending into congressional districts. That action, which could come as early as next month, would be followed by a tougher vote to reduce the deficit with tax increases and spending cuts.

The advantage of such a plan is that it would allow lawmakers to take credit for popular programs before they are forced to face possible voter wrath over deficit reduction steps. It also would address concerns that the economy may slide back into recession, unless it gets a boost from new government spending.

Many in Congress, however, worry that this two-step approach could weaken the overall plan, particularly if a delay on deficit reduction gives interest groups time to gear up their opposition. "If we separate the sugar and the medicine into two separate spoonfuls, Congress will always swallow the sugar and never take the medicine," Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., said.

Republicans, meanwhile, were warming up the arguments they plan to use in trying to defeat the proposal.