WASHINGTON -- President Clinton sought to shore up support in the House for his $343 billion deficit-reduction package yesterday as conservative Democrats criticized its broad-based energy tax and continued to push for entitlement caps.

"I think the program is picking up steam again," Clinton said as he emerged from a meeting with Democratic lawmakers. He commended the House Ways and Means Committee for producing a bill last week that "confirms, reinforces, and in some ways improves" upon his own proposals.

Included in the tax committee's bill, which is largely composed of $272 billion of tax increases, are key elements of Clinton's economic program such as urban empowerment zones and permanent extensions for mortgage revenue bonds and industrial development bonds.

"I think people realize we have to make up some for the investment deficit of the last 12 years," he said.

Clinton also put aside criticism of the bill's energy tax raised this week by a group of 60 conservative and moderate Democrats from oil and gas regions that would be hard hit by the tax.

"I feel good about the energy tax," in part because Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's announcement of the plan last fall sparked a major bond market rally, he said.

Rep. Charles Wilson, D-Tex., one outspoken conservative, said he told Clinton during the meeting that he "fears" the House will "go through the pain of voting" for the tax next week only to see it either killed in the Senate or "swallowed up" by the uncontrolled growth of entitlement programs.

"It is a very dangerous thing for a Texas Democrat to vote for an energy tax and have Sen. Phil Gramm," R-Tex., later take credit for torpedoing it, Wilson said.

Wilson said he and other House conservatives were reassured by promises from Clinton and congressional leaders to resist widely anticipated attempts to alter or drop the energy tax in the Senate. Ways and Means member also told him, Wilson said, that they would not agree to drop the tax in House-Senate conference over the bill.

But he said the conservatives are not likely to back down from their demand for caps on entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. He said that many members of Congress are still smarting from their experience of voting for a $150 billion tax increase in 1990, only to the entire increase eaten up by unanticipated spending in those programs.

Far from endangering Clinton's program, Wilson said the caps on entitlement spending would improve the bill and make it more salable to members of Congress. An amendment to adopt five-year caps would attract 100 Democratic votes in addition to most of the House's 176 Republican votes, he said.

But Clinton told the caucus of Democratic legislator that he continues to be strongly opposed to such caps because they are not the right way to address the entitlement problem.

"I want to control health-care costs as bad or worse than anyone else in the United States," he said, but "you have to do that through a health-care program" that encompasses both the private sector and government. Governments currently account for about 40% of health-care spending.

Experience with cost controls over various health-care expenditures in the last 12 years showed that they only ended up shifting costs and price increases onto the private sector, where hospitals, employers, and others ended up picking up the tab, Clinton said.

Clinton also stressed that the budget package contains more than $100 billion of entitlement reforms, primarily in Medicare.

Wilson said Clinton's arguments were "not very persuasive," however. Rep. Timothy Penny, D-Minn., said conservatives would continue to push for including the caps in the budget package when it reaches the House floor next week. The bill first must be reported by the House Budget Committee, which is set to do so tomorrow.

Penny said a possible compromise would be to tie implementation of the caps to enactment of Clinton's health-care reform proposals that will be submitted to Congress later this year.

"I think there is a way to work it out so there is no way of the caps becoming a roadblock to health-care reform," he said.

Penny rejected a compromise offer being floated by the House Democratic leadership to schedule a House floor vote on the cap proposal after the budget bill is passed.

"I'm not sure they'll give us another shot. There's no way you can enforce a promise," he said, adding "the cap is the most important thing to conservatives."

Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., vice chairman of the caucus, said that many members agree with Clinton that health-care controls should be included in a comprehensive overhaul bill. He added that the budget package overall appears to be gaining support from the Democrats.

"It's the most important vote in this Congress, and I think we're all there," he said. "There's a feeling this is an opportunity to change the course of modern history, do something about deficit reduction, and overcome our regional differences. Picking this package apart is something most members won't allow."

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