WASHINGTON -- If Daniel Patrick Moynihan were a play, they would have closed him before he got to Broadway.

Back in January, critics of New York's senior senator were falling all over themselves predicting disaster after they heard Moynihan would succeed Lloyd Bentsen as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The naysayers considered Moynihan too eccentric to run the committee. They said he was better suited to thinking lofty thoughts in an ivory tower than to cutting deals in a smoke-filled room.

Though chairman in name for the last six months, Moynihan had his real debut as the Senate's top tax writer in June, guiding the committee through a protracted, grueling negotiation over President Clinton's budget and tax package.

Now the reviews are in, and by all accounts the Democrat has turned in a boffo performance that, as the cliche goes, confounded the critics. Every person interviewed in a small, unscientific survey conducted for this column used the word "impressive" to describe his handling of the committee.

"I think he did better than I expected," said one lobbyist, admitting that, "I think he gets a bum rap."

As another Capitol Hill watcher pointed out, "People sort of offhandedly acknowledge Moynihan as bright, but then they don't take the next step and [thus] don't assume he knows how to get things done."

Moynihan's success seemed all the more unlikely because of the unusually difficult task he faced. Soon after the House passed Clinton's budget and tax package in late May, Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., announced that he could not accept the package because it contained a proposal for a Btu tax, a levy on the heat content of fossil fuels.

Boren's vote -- and the vote of every single Democrat on the finance panel -- was critical, because the Democrats hold only a one-vote margin on the 20-member committee, and all nine Republicans were expected to vote against the bill. One Democratic defection, and there would be no Senate bill.

So Moynihan took his Democrats behind closed doors for more than a week of negotiations on the tax package. As the talks continued, it seemed that every time Moynihan worked out a problem, a new one came up.

For example, Boren was placated when the Democrats agreed to replace the Btu tax with an increase in the federal gasoline tax and deep cuts in the Medicare program. But Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., objected to the gas tax increase, and Sen. John D. Rockefeller 4th, D-W.VA., wanted the Medicare cuts scaled back.

But Moynihan persisted, ironed out all the problems, and was ready to hold a full-committee drafting session by June 17, just one day before the finance panel was required by the congressional budget committees to have its bill completed.

The chairman's next problem was the Republicans, who were so angry about being kept out of the closed-door meetings that they wore name tags to the drafting session so the Democrats would remember who they were.

The Republicans dragged out the proceedings by constantly interrupting the staff director of the Joint Tax Committee, Hank Guttman, as he described the bill. Moynihan strove to keep the interruptions to a minimum, not by chastising the Republicans, but through dashes of humor.

Pointing out that Guttman had spent several sleepless nights helping to put the bill together, Moynihan repeatedly told panel members, "we have to keep Mr. Guttman talking or he'll fall asleep."

The Republicans' next tactic was to push a slew of amendments, but Moynihan persuaded them to offer only a dozen, with a time limit for debating each. The committee was thus able to take a final vote on the measure around noon on June 18, about 12 hours before the deadline.

"Moynihan had a very difficult time in trying to broker a deal with a variety of factions in the Senate," said a housing lobbyist. "This was one of the more difficult tasks he's faced as a legislator and I must admire his ability to have done what he's done."

But Moynihan won't have an opportunity to sit back and bask in the praise. Capitol Hill watchers are waiting to see how he will handle going head-to-head with the House's chief tax writer, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill.

The Ways and Means Committee's chairman will head the House conferees and Moynihan their Senate counterparts when the two sides sit down to hammer out a final tax bill later this month.

Many in the media and some on Capitol Hill are emphasizing the differences between Moynihan, the patrician former professor, and Rostenkowski, the hard-bitten former ward politician.

But as Moynihan proved last month, he has one big thing in common with his House counterpart: When he needs to, he can cut a deal.

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