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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No price was too high or too low: parks, highways and other pork projects served as common currency. As many as 15 lawmakers from peanut-producing states switched when the White House agreed to curb the flow of imported Chinese peanut butter -- at a steep cost to American consumers. Clinton promised to toughen his policy toward Haiti to woo several black lawmakers. One telephone conversation between a Cabinet officer and an undecided lawmaker went like this: "Congressman, I'm sitting here chewing my fingers and wondering what else we can do to win this vote. I know you've talked to the President, and he wanted me to remind you how important this vote is to him and our party and our country. He knows this is a tough vote for you, and he and I both want you to know that if you can be with us, we won't forget it . . . Well, yes, I think we can help with your project. Can I set up a meeting with you on that for next week?"

The bartering continued Thursday, the day of the big vote. Pennsylvania Congressman Ron Klink of Pittsburgh opposed the energy tax and the effect it would have on steelmakers in his district. He had campaigned against higher taxes and had told Clinton two days earlier that the bill would hurt his district. On Thursday morning Klink extracted a promise from the President that steel producers would get a tax rebate for steel exports, helping Klink's constituents compete in foreign markets. By 4 p.m. Thursday, Clinton "hit the wall," said an aide who was present, still three votes short. Between the hours of 7 and 9 that night, while downing a huge hamburger and a plate of French fries, the President promised to play golf with three different Congressmen sometime this summer. The numbers kept moving, right down to the last 30 seconds. When it was over, Clinton and his aides looked around the Oval Office with a mixture of relief and astonishment. "That was the closest vote of my life," remarked Bentsen, who spent 28 years in Congress.

- In spite of the odds against them, Clinton's team is oddly sanguine about the coming Senate fight, set to begin on June 7 when the Finance Committee takes up the House-passed bill. The chief obstacle is Boren, from oil-rich Oklahoma, who opposes the energy tax and is the pivotal vote on the panel. Administration officials believe they may still pick off Boren, but Democrats on Capitol Hill are already talking darkly of retribution if he doesn't fall into line. One likely target: the Senator, regarded as pompous and self- important even by Senate standards, helped create the David L. Boren National Security Education program, which provides scholarships to graduates. "It's not a big thing," said one aide, "but it's a big thing to Boren."

Bentsen and McLarty worked steadily behind the scenes last week to keep Louisiana Senator John Breaux quiet about his objections to the energy tax until the House vote was safely over. But eventually they realized they might do better enlisting the Senator to help broker a compromise to lessen the BTU tax's impact. Officials said House members' reservations would be taken into account when the Senate marks up its measure.

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