By David Kurlander
Not a single Senate Republican voted for the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that President Biden signed into law last week. The slim Democratic Senate majority, then, made the difference in passing in what The New Yorker dubbed “the most economically liberal piece of legislation in decades.” Almost thirty years ago, President Clinton endeavored to pass a comparatively miniscule $19 billion stimulus at the beginning of his first term. Even with a larger Senate majority, Clinton was unable to push his stimulus past fierce Republican opposition. His failure served as an early indication of growing congressional partisanship that would come to define his first term and many of the subsequent battles to pass progressive programs.
In December 1992—a month after his insurgent victory over President George H.W. Bush—President-elect Clinton hosted the Clinton Economic Summit in Little Rock with 329 top economists and business leaders. Clinton had won the presidency in part because of the faltering economy (unemployment at 7%) and he was eager to push through a stimulus as part of an ambitious economic plan, something that the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, had also made a central component of his transition.
The size and resultant political viability of the stimulus was central to the discourse at the Arkansas summit. Keynesian economist and elder statesman James Tobin, who had helped Kennedy and LBJ plan their ambitious social programs, was a leading voice in Little Rock, advocating for a large, $60 billion package and urging quick passage: “If you wait longer, it’s dangerous,” Tobin warned. Journalist Elizabeth Drew had a cynical read of the elder economist’s inclusion in the conversation, arguing that Clinton’s team “put Tobin on the program to take this position so that Clinton’s forthcoming proposal, whatever it was, would look more middle-of-the-road.”
Clinton, with Republicans in mind, indeed shot lower than Tobin’s proposal. Shortly before the inauguration, two of Clinton’s top Treasury Department designates, Roger Altman and Larry Summers (who has reemerged as a voice of caution about the Biden stimulus) presented the President with a memo laying out a $20-odd billion stimulus.
Over the next two months, Clinton’s team put together the specifics of what became a $16.4 billion plan: $6 billion for infrastructure, $4 billion to extend unemployment benefits, $2 billion for education, $2 billion for summer jobs, and $2.5 billion for Community Development Block Group (CDBG) spending, grants for social projects in cities that Clinton hoped would help build a bridge to mayors and to heal some of the wounds from the previous year’s L.A. Riots. The proposal also included a longtime—and very relevant—Clintonian promise: free immunizations for every American child.
Clinton announced the package details on February 17th, 1993, as part of a larger, soaring introduction of his economic plan before a joint session of Congress. “If the package is picked apart, there will be something that will anger each of us, won’t please anybody,” Clinton cautioned. “But if it is taken as a whole, it will help all of us.” Buoyed by Clinton’s optimistic oration, the stimulus made it through the House on March 19th, even though only three Republicans voted in favor.
Then, the proposal hit Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole’s firewall in the Senate. Dole argued that the economy was no longer in need of a stimulus, following the release of fourth-quarter 1992 growth numbers that suggested consumer spending was on the upswing. “The Bush recovery is well underway…the last thing we need to do now is threaten the ongoing recovery by adding billions of dollars to the deficit,” Dole noted. Meanwhile, Colorado Senator Hank Brown zeroed in on “pork barrel” spending in the CDBGs, highlighting “façade improvement” projects in Hartford and golf course maintenance earmarks in Florida.
On April 2nd, every Republican Senator stood behind Dole’s proposal of a filibuster against the stimulus—the Democrats, even with a 57-43 majority, would be unable to field the 60 votes required to end debate. “It’s the playoffs,” Dole told reporters. The following three weeks saw frenzied discussions over amendments, reductions, and Republican counterproposals. Team Clinton agreed to budget cuts to offset the spending and lopped several billion from the plan, but to no avail. Dole was committed.
Clinton’s frustration boiled over on April 12th, Easter Monday 1993, when he attacked Senate Republicans during the White House Easter Egg Hunt, using the child immunizations as his peg. “You can look out there at those kids…They are the hostages of the Senate filibuster on the stimulus program,” Clinton said. “When I go out there on the lawn and I think about those kids, picking up Easter eggs, I want to be able to think about them all being immunized.”
Veteran Democratic West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd—a 75-year-old once-segregationist who was decidedly a vestige of an old-school approach to legislative battle—advocated a game of chicken in the Senate, trying to force the GOP to end the filibuster by continuing the debate indefinitely. According to Bob Woodward, Byrd wanted to “bring in the cots to the Senate floor” and felt “so confident of success he gave [Clinton aide Howard] Paster a high-five.”
Clinton, however, was increasingly conscious that a headline-grabbing legislative standoff over $16 billion was not a good look for the fledgling administration. As Woodward put it, “Clinton had almost come to the point of hollering, my kingdom for a stimulus package.” Byrd was reticent to back down, but Clinton called him on April 21st and told him the time had come. “Byrd was adamant that if we didn’t bend, we could break the filibuster. But we couldn’t,” Clinton reflected in his memoir. Dole, for his part, was not particularly gracious in victory, blaming Clinton’s supposed lack of candor for the stimulus’ downfall. “The trouble is they didn’t call us. It’s too late now,” Dole said.
Woodward also quoted Clinton as taking responsibility for the bill’s political drawbacks. “I’m never going to be so vulnerable again…That bill had too much pork in it,” Clinton allegedly told aides. “It was designed to ring the bell of every committee chairman.” Although he blamed his team for the flawed package, he also expressed public shock that Republicans had been so obstructionist. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Clinton told reporters after announcing that he was pulling the stimulus plan. “A lot of the Republican Senators told me they wanted to work something out.”
Senate Democrats managed to push through the $4 billion unemployment benefits extension and the $2 billion summer jobs program tie-in, but Dole & Co. had won the day. “Clinton lost more than a bill,” wrote Clinton quasi-surrogate Sidney Blumenthal in The New Yorker. “Its defeat disclosed the loss of his ideological momentum.”
Dole, already a veteran of two presidential runs, had re-asserted Republican strength and had positioned himself as the most effective heir to the Reagan legacy of suspicion toward social programs. “The Bobster, a 69-year-old spring chicken, is at the top of his game,” wrote Joseph Ellis in the Los Angeles Times. Clinton’s domestic agenda—most notably his universal healthcare bill—would continue to be scuttled by Dole and an increasingly oppositional House for the rest of the term. And Dole would indeed take on Clinton for the presidency in 1996.
President Biden has, unlike Clinton, maintained his “ideological momentum,” albeit with Republican stonewalling. Now, with $1,400 stimulus payments arriving in American bank accounts, the Congress and the country will see if he can expand his mandate further.
The two works central to the background for this piece were Elizabeth Drew’s 1994 On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency and Bob Woodward’s 1994 The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, both captivating inside looks at Clinton’s first year in office.
To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.
Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: