WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sen. Bob Kerrey got the treatment from the White House Friday: The president called him to a long, private session in the first family's living quarters. A presidential footman pulled the car around so he could dodge reporters and pouring rain.

The White House press secretary later joked that a room in the executive mansion might be renamed in Kerrey's honor. Then President Clinton needed him again - this time urgently ringing the Senate cloak room to have a few words with Kerrey.

The unpredictable Nebraska Democrat, a defeated presidential rival of Clinton, was the last senator to reveal how he would vote on a deficit- reduction compromise some said could make or break Clinton's presidency.

He kept the suspense going until about an hour before the Senate's scheduled vote, before finally siding with the president. ''I could not and should not cast a vote that brings down your presidency,'' Kerrey finally said, ending the mystery at about 8:35 p.m. EDT.

Clinton had to wait until the end, too, as Kerrey called him about 8:25 p.m. to give him the news. Kerrey said he teetered all day toward voting no. ''My head aches from thinking,'' he said.

Earlier, Kerrey said he couldn't help feeling a bit squeezed.

''I've got myself in a box, and I don't know how to get out of it,'' he moaned to a fellow senator on the floor in the afternoon, as he struggled with the decision.

After all, Kerrey had publicly criticized Clinton's plan as the wrong approach - too short on spending cuts.

Kerrey even chortled that he felt like Chicago White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura who charged Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan after being hit by a pitched ball - and ended up in a headlock with Ryan pummeling him.

''I'm Ventura, he's Nolan Ryan,'' Kerrey wisecracked after his one-on-one with Clinton.

His critics have long labeled Kerrey indecisive - saying he agonizes in public over major issues. Democrats expressed annoyance with Kerrey for making life so difficult for the administration.

Kerrey and Clinton have had strained relations in the past. During last year's campaign, Kerrey, a Vietnam War hero who lost his leg in battle, said Clinton would be opened up like a ''soft peanut'' on his draft record. A few months later, Kerrey gave a moving and eloquent speech in Clinton's defense for avoiding the war.

Kerrey's friends call that ancient history. But they say he has felt hemmed in because White House aides went on TV and predicted a ''yes'' vote from Kerrey. The atmospherics made it harder for Kerrey to vote against the plan without appearing disloyal to the Democrats, these associates said.

Kerrey scouted for last-minute help in making the decision. He asked Senate Finance Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., over to his office. He had breakfast with Sen. Jim Exon, his Democratic colleague from Nebraska.

After playing cat-and-mouse with reporters dogging his every move Friday, Kerrey finally emerged to share a bit of his soul searching.

''What's missing ... is a moral consensus,'' said Kerrey, nicknamed ''Cosmic Bob'' by friends who find his musings transcendental. There's an ''ethical'' issue at stake, he said.

It was not so much the size of spending cuts, Kerrey said, but the plan's failure to ask ''shared sacrifice'' of all Americans. Right now, it mostly hits the wealthy, he said.

''Politically, that's kind of fun, but economically it's hard to justify,'' he said.

''I'm not asking the president to promise to do anything,'' Kerrey said, insisting he was not looking for a tradeoff.

Of Clinton's courtship, Kerrey said: ''There's nothing to lobby. He knows where I stand. ... He wants me to vote 'yes,' and at the moment I'm not a 'yes.'''

Asked if a ''no'' vote would hurt his political career, he fired back:

''I don't know. Help it or hurt it, one of the two.''