Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey is often called the most disliked member of the Senate. But nobody downgrades his intelligence or political savvy, which is why he became chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as a third-year senator. Now, his posture on taxes has enhanced his unpopularity and his reputation for shrewdness.

While other Senate Democrats mimicked President Clinton's class warfare in assailing serious tax reduction, Torricelli was one of four Democratic senators who voted for the senate bill. He reverted to party discipline to oppose the final version last Thursday. But while politicians of both parties dig in for a 2000 partisan debate, Torricelli is ready for phase two of the tax fight, which is intended to put a compromise on Clinton's desk.

For a Democratic leader to stray so far off the reservation is breathtaking. Contemptuous Democrats dismissed the apostasy of "The Torch" as an appeal to big money. Actually, Torricelli is appealing to the great American middle class with an appreciation of tax policy surpassing fellow Democrats and many Republicans as well. Indeed, Republican senators had to be coerced into passing a relatively modest bill, 50 to 49.

Torricelli is no centrist (his liberal voting record last year was 85 percent, against 8 percent conservative). He likes big government and big spending. But while Clinton loves to bash the "rich," Torricelli understands that the people who actually pay income taxes should receive income tax cuts. He also knows that $75,000-a-year taxpayers, who would be denied tax cuts by Clinton, are not "rich" but represent the middle class that both parties must court.

In his Thursday night Senate floor statement regretfully announcing his opposition to the final tax bill, Torricelli challenged the White House: "The first phase is concluded. A message is being sent to the president and to the American people by both political parities." He is looking for 20 (out of 45) Democratic senators, to confront Clinton with a predicament similar to what he faced in 1996 when he signed a welfare reform bill.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was at least interested last Thursday night when staffers suggested a parliamentary technique that would put the bill in suspended animation after final passage, so that Congress quickly could pass a bipartisan bill following the August recess. Lott dispatched an aide across the Capitol to consult House Republican leaders. Their response: No way. We don't want to appear to be negotiating with Clinton.

While GOP leaders prefer an ideological showdown over a real tax cut, at the opposite extreme, an influential minority of Republicans appreciate the desirability of tax relief considerably less than Bob Torricelli. Eleventh-hour concessions had to be injected to win over liberal Republican Sens. John Chafee of Rhode Island and James Jeffords of Vermont. Phil Gramm had to spend the day holding John McCain's hand to assuage his pain over the bill's corporate benefits.

The anguish of most Democrats and many Republicans over what Clinton called a "huge" tax reduction is hardly warranted. The "triggers" that cut in when debt reduction falters would reduce the estimated 10-year revenue loss of $972 billion to $545 billion. If the Federal Reserve makes any slight increase in interest rates, the first tax cut would be postponed to 2003.

The new Democratic mantra wails that the national debt must be brought down. But what the party's faithful really want was spelled out in Senate debate by Minnesota's Paul Wellstone, an old-fashioned liberal: "What this [tax cuts] will do is put this country in a straitjacket where any kind of any investment that any senator will talk about to expand opportunities for our citizens will be, by definition, fiscally irresponsible." In other words, if you reduce taxes, we can't increase government -- the president's real position.

Torricelli is a fierce partisan, but he sees disaster for his party in Wellstone's old-time religion. From the other end of the spectrum, conservative Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sees trouble for his party if the Republican Congress passes no tax relief. The two have never met, though Graham attempted to reach Torricelli on the telephone last Thursday. Whether this odd couple gets together may determine whether America gets tax relief or just more political massage.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.