Although they were lukewarm, at best, toward President Clinton's FY98 budget proposal Thursday, Republican leaders still said they want to begin early budget negotiations with the president.
"We don't intend to take a Republican budget and drive it through," Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., told CongressDaily late Thursday. Nickles said GOP leaders want to use next week's meeting with Clinton to lay the groundwork for opening more detailed negotiations.
Republicans have said they want early talks with the administration, and, with the hope of a quick budget deal, aides have suggested those talks could begin even before an FY98 budget resolution goes to the floor in either chamber.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said while Clinton's budget is "alive ... it's definitely not kicking." Nevertheless, Lott added: "Republicans have said that our goal is to work to achieve an agreement with the administration to balance the budget in 2002 and beyond. We will continue to work to make this happen."
For their part, White House officials Thursday downplayed the negative responses from Republicans, and emphasized the fact that Clinton's budget is being taken seriously on Capitol Hill. "We fully expected that there would be criticism, but the important thing for the president is that there has been no dismissal of his budget proposal as a document `dead on arrival'," White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry said.
As for reaction from within Clinton's own party, Senate Budget ranking member Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he is happy enough with the president's budget that he does not foresee Senate Democrats coming up with a spending blueprint of their own.
"The president has presented a budget I am comfortable with," Lautenberg said. "I think it's the kind of budget that most Democrats will enthusiastically support. The last thing we want to do is have some internal warfare." Lautenberg said he is convinced GOP leaders would like a fast budget deal.
"The problem is going to be with the more extreme Republican members," Lautenberg said. "Will the Republican leadership, with all its good intentions, be able to round up the wild horses and get them in the corral?"
Despite the pledges of cooperation to reach a future budget deal, Republicans Thursday were far less positive about Clinton's specific proposals.
"Billions in additional new spending contradict the president's publicly stated commitment to balancing the budget," House Appropriations Chairman Robert Livingston, R-La., said.
Livingston said he is worried the administration wants to pay for new spending through $2.3 billion in new user fees, a plan he said Congress would not accept.
Livingston said the $2 billion cut in defense spending is not as severe as in past years, but said he is worried the administration is proposing $2.8 billion more in defense rescissions than are needed to pay for a supplemental appropriation for the cost of the Bosnia mission.
He also said he was disappointed that the administration did not specify offsetting cuts for the $2 billion supplemental needed for the Bosnia mission.
House National Security Chairman Floyd Spence, R-S.C., also was upset with the defense numbers, saying, "As opposed to building a bridge to the 21st Century for our military forces, this budget request looks more like a tightrope without a safety net."
The release of the budget also triggered a renewal of the battle over whether the administration should use OMB or CBO economic assumptions.
"While uncertainty exists in any economic forecast, considering the demographic and fiscal challenges facing the country in the next century from an aging population, the more conservative CBO economic forecast would normally be preferred," the Senate Budget Committee Republican staff said in an analysis of the president's budget.
Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and House Budget Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, charged that by using OMB assumptions, the administration was able to avoid having to make an additional $58 billion in cuts.
Democrats, however, defended the OMB assumptions as more accurate than the CBO's.
"In the past four years ... OMB's forecasting record for both the economy and the deficit have been superior to CBO's, even while actual growth and deficits have been better than either agency's projections," the Senate Budget Committee Democratic staff said in its own analysis.
Lautenberg echoed those sentiments, saying the "OMB has been far more accurate than CBO."
Meanwhile, in defense of the harsh criticism from Domenici and Kasich, White House aides explained that although the president's budget includes serious increases in nondefense discretionary spending, it includes an 8.8 percent cut that is adjusted for inflation.
"It is tough that it has an 8.8 percent real cut, and that includes within it significant increases," National Economic Council Chairman Gene Sperling said.
Sperling also defended the White House from criticism that it used a six-year number instead of a five-year number to describe its savings in Medicare.
He said the White House lists Medicare savings of $138 billion over six years, instead of $100 billion over five years, which would be consistent with the rest of the budget, to stress the comparison with the Coalition's proposal last year. The Coalition budget called for roughly $138 billion in Medicare savings over six years and slightly less than $100 billion over five years.
Mary Ann Akers also contributed to this report.