FOR the first time in his presidency, Bill Clinton this week showed that he can get as mad as the rest. In an unexpected outburst in a speech in Chicago, the normally urbane president, fired up by a heckler, railed against Congress for holding up his legislative programme, saying ''gridlock is bad for America''. The G-word, of course, was the leitmotiv of his two Republican predecessors when complaining of a Democrat-controlled legislature standing in the way of conservative policies. With a supposedly friendly Congress under him, it was not expected that Mr Clinton would have recourse to the same complaint. He appeared to have cause for concern; not only were members of both parties arguing all the way to the tape on the minutiae of his budget package, but Republicans had filibustered a National Service Bill and, more incredibly, the US$3 billion flooding aid package. Mid West republicans had to go home to explain to angry farmers, whose livelihood had been destroyed, that they were blocking the proposal in an effort to find the funding from further public spending cuts rather than yet more federal borrowing. Although the flood measure finally passed, Mr Clinton's ire can barely be abated when he looks at the progress of the National Service Bill. This seemingly innocuous, non-partisan Bill would spend nearly US$400 million a year providing educational grantsto young people on community service projects. Republicans have been filibustering the legislation for a week, branding it another Clinton ''tax and spend'' nightmare. But when it hit the House floor for another day of congressional snakes and ladders on Wednesday, a new sinister note entered proceedings, sparking four hours of acrimonious debate. The subject, incongruously, was one that has been nagging at the Americanconsciousness for weeks - illegal immigration. WITH every Chinese boat that founders off the coast, and with every wave of wetbacks crossing the border into Texas, newspapers, broadcasters and, naturally politicians, have begun saying what the Statue of Liberty can hardly believe she would ever hear; that immigration has gone too far. President Clinton's long-expected announcement the day before of a crackdown on illegal immigration, backed up by US$172 million for more border officers, was certainly welcomed; but it has opened a can of worms in which taxpayers are no longer afraid to voice their alarm at the tide of immigration for fear of being branded racist. Suddenly illegal immigration, Saddam Hussein notwithstanding, is public enemy number one. The extraordinary events on the Congress floor had nothing to do with the Clinton bill; that will be introduced into the Senate by Edward Kennedy. But they took place under its shadow. Californian Republican Bill Baker hijacked the National Service bill by trying to amend it, suggesting that every charity or community project providing aid should be forced to refuse any help to an illegal immigrant. In other words, papers showing proof of residency would be required from all minorities when seeking help. For four hours, one congressman after another on the Republican benches stood up to defend his constituents, who were fed up with subsidising illegals while genuine citizens went homeless or hungry. ''You can't hand police our borders while the Government hands out stipends to illegal immigrants,'' said one; ''We should stop calling members racist just because they believe in fiscal responsibility,'' went another. As congressman Dana Rohrabacher told the floor ''we can't afford to spend billions on people here illegally from another country when our own people are going wanting,'' one could almost hear the cheers erupting in middle America. But on the Democrat benches, members fired back by accusing their opponents of pandering to racism and going against the spirit of America's historical role as a home to all. Prominent Hispanic member Jose Serrano was vehement in his opposition to what he called a ''mean-spirited message to beat up on the immigrant''. ''Let's get to it right away,'' he said. ''If most immigrants to this country were fair skinned, blue eyed and light haired, this would not be an issue. After the accusations and counter-accusations had ceased, the amendment fell victim to the Democrat majority. But its message was clear. Television pictures of boatloads of Chinese - coupled with the estimated five million illegal immigrants currently beating the system inside the country - have served to rekindle a nation's fears and politicians know that it is an issue on which people are prepared to vote.