That Sinking Feeling

Is Clinton up to the job? As a staff shake-up begins and his four-month approval ratings dip to record lows, Americans are starting to wonder +

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% Two weeks ago, it seemed as if history was about to repeat itself. As the House prepared to take up the President's 1994 budget, Clinton once more faced a mini-revolt by a group of 40 moderate Democrats, led by Congressman Charles Stenholm of Texas, who demanded a stiff cap on entitlement spending to keep the deficit under control. Liberals, led by members of the black and Hispanic caucuses, promised to bolt if Clinton gave the moderates an inch. Round-the- clock talks between the two camps were helping Clinton maintain a shaky majority in the House. But at one point last Tuesday afternoon, Stenholm suffered an attack of cold feet, and the talks broke down.

Poring over a maze of call sheets and whip counts at his Oval Office desk, Clinton saw his thin majority evaporate into a crushing 30-vote defeat. He looked up and appealed to higher powers. "Where are the votes going to come from now?" he implored. "Where are we going to get them? They're just not there."

Majority leader Richard Gephardt intervened to keep Stenholm at the table, and talks continued through Wednesday. But the negotiations broke down four or five more times during the next 36 hours, and it wasn't until 1 a.m. Thursday that Gephardt and Stenholm found a solution. White House officials later praised Stenholm, noting that he kept the rebellion "in the family and did not go looking for votes in the G.O.P."

Meanwhile the Cabinet was getting rebellious too. Many of the agency chiefs were bewildered that their boss was struggling for survival without their help. Some had been cut out of key strategy sessions, and others had not spoken to Clinton for weeks except in passing or on other matters. When the President finally sat down with his counselors to ask for help, several complained that Clinton would never prevail in Washington if he continued to send inexperienced White House aides to lobby elected officials. "When I was in Congress," said one, "I made sure I never talked to White House staffers. But when a member of the Cabinet called, I cleared my schedule."

Within hours, in a tone of firmness bordering on desperation, White House Cabinet secretary Christine Varney told counterparts at federal agencies that Clinton had decided "there is nothing any Cabinet Secretary is doing for the next two days that's more important than lobbying Congress." Working from White House lists of undecided lawmakers, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy telephoned farm-state Representatives. Defense Secretary Les Aspin worked Congressmen with major military installations in their states. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt buttonholed Western lawmakers. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen reasoned with the Texas delegation. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor concentrated on Californians. During the next two days, the Clinton Administration bought, rented and bartered for every vote it could find. One Cabinet officer described his mission plainly: "Find out what these Congressmen want, and if possible give it to them."

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