WASHINGTON - President Clinton, after weeks of opposition, yesterday agreed to a compromise plan to include caps on entitlement spending in his $344 billion budget package, giving a boost to the bill as it heads for a House floor vote tomorrow.
"The President is positively inclined to some form of entitlement control," said Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., the House's chief deputy majority whip, after a White House meeting with the President and 75 other House Democrats yesterday.
The compromise spending-cap plan, worked out by House Democratic leaders and Office of Management and Budget Director Leon Panetta, addresses concerns raised earlier by Clinton and liberals that arbitrary limits on entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security would hurt the poor and elderly who depend on those programs, Richardson and other House members said.
The compromise plan, which the House Rules Committee is expected to incorporate into the budget bill today, would not require across-the-board spending cuts in all the entitlement programs if they exceeded their caps, as proposed earIier by conservative Texas Democrat Charles Stenholm.
Instead, the plan would require the President to propose, and Congress to vote on, legislation offsetting any spending in excess of the caps, said House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
The compromise plan enjoys a "consensus" of approval not only among Clinton and liberal Democrats, Gephardt said, but among conservatives and moderates who had pressed for limits on the rapidly growing entitlement programs.
Stenholm and other conservatives had linked their support for the budget package to inclusion of some kind of cap on entitlements, and liberals warned that if the caps were too stringent, they also might vote against the bill.
"We tried to come up with something that is meaningful, but less automatic" than the Stenholm plan, Richardson said.
Over all, the cap proposal is designed to enforce the $50.5 billion of Medicare cuts and other entitlement reforms included in the budget package by setting the caps at the levels resulting from those reforms.
While the House proposal represents one of Congress' first serious attempts at capping entitlements, it is not as stringent as a cap plan floated last week by Sen. David Boren, D-Okla. That plan would limit entitlement growth to the rate of inflation plus population growth each year.
With agreement on the entitlement provision in hand, the House leaders are increasingly confident that the budget package will pass tomorrow. Richardson said about 18 black and Hispanic caucus members threw their support behind the bill in light of the spending cap compromise.
However, 14 of the House's 256 Democrats have said they definitely will not support the package, Richardson said, and another 45 Democrats are still undecided. Assuming that no Republicans vote for the bill, that leaves it 21 votes short of the 218 needed to pass, he said.
"We don't have the votes yet, but we think we will by Thursday. And a strong vote in the House will put pressure on the Senate" to pass the bill largely intact, Richardson said.
Democratic leaders are billing the vote as the most important one in the last 10 years, and are warning members that defeat of the bill would deal a "crippling blow" not only to Clinton's economic program but to any presidential initiatives that come after it, Richardson said.
Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., said House members told Clinton at the meeting that, despite strong feelings of party loyalty, passage will be far from "automatic" and he will have to continue to sell the package in both houses.
Several representatives suggested the President make a televised appearance to explain the plan to the public, which would give "political cover" to some members under fire for the bill's $272 billion of tax increases, said Richardson.
The President used the meeting to assure wavering Democrats that if they vote for the plan, he will not undercut them later by striking a deal in the Senate to eliminate the plan's unpopular energy tax, Glickman said.
Such a deal is being sought by Boren and some other senators from oil-producing states. One senator who also visited the White House yesterday, Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., predicted that the energy tax would be reduced and modified in the Senate, while more spending cuts would be added.
Boren, who holds a swing vote on the Senate Finance Committee, last week proposed a plan that would do away with the energy tax entirely and substitute deep cuts in the entitlement programs. The proposal received support from a handful of other Senate Democrats and Republicans.
But the House leaders downplayed the significance of the Boren plan. "The bipartisan alternative doesn't have the votes. It was aimed at disrupting our vote in the House," said Richardson.
Gephardt said he believes the President's program will pass the Senate largely as proposed.