Declaring the time is ripe to "seize this opportunity" to reach a balanced budget agreement, President Clinton Tuesday summoned Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici,R-N.M., House Budget Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, and other congressional budget leaders to the White House today to begin immediate negotiations.
He asked his budget team and congressional aides to stay in town during the two weeks that Congress is scheduled to be in recess, starting this weekend, to begin staff-level talks.
In explaining the immediate need for the meeting, Clinton noted that some Republican congressional leaders, namely House Speaker Gingrich, Monday had said they were willing to forego tax cuts in a balanced budget package.
"Yesterday the Republican leaders showed me flexibility on tax cuts and economic assumptions," Clinton said. Such comments are "a very positive sign," the president said, and "move us closer than ever to the point where we can reach an agreement on a balanced budget that is good for the American people."
Clinton did not disclose precisely what the Republicans said that sparked his call to action, and he gave no indication of whether he would be willing to shelve some of his proposals for more spending in exchange for smaller tax cuts.
However, in addition to recent statements by both Gingrich and Domenici on putting off tax cuts, Senate Majority Leader Lott's comments to reporters Monday that Republicans might compromise on the CBO's more pessimistic assumptions about the President's budget were also seen as critical opening by the administration. "The president felt like that needed to be responded to favorably," White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry told CongressDaily.
Clinton is scheduled to meet with the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Budget panels about 2:30 this afternoon, in advance of his scheduled departure tonight for Helsinki and his summit meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Clinton said he wants "an assessment" from the four legislators, Domenici, Kasich, Senate Budget ranking member Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and House Budget ranking member John Spratt, D-S.C., of prospects on Capitol Hill for reaching a bipartisan budget agreement.
The President said he is more optimistic now that Gingrich and other GOP leaders, although by no means a consensus of the Republican Conference, are willing to move ahead with a balanced budget proposal even though it does not provide broad tax relief.
"I sense that more and more Democrats and Republicans believe ... as I do, that we have to seize this opportunity to pass a bipartisan agreement to balance the budget," Clinton said.
Despite the administration's optimism, it was clear the atmosphere on Capitol Hill had not fully ripened for a bipartisan agreement. Republicans fought among themselves over whether to wait for tax cuts until after the budget is balanced; a group of more than two dozen House conservatives sent GOP leaders a letter saying they remain committed to an early tax cut.
As Senate Finance Chairman Roth floated a budget plan containing large tax cuts, Roth's House counterpart, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, also said he disagreed with Gingrich's suggestion of scrapping tax cuts from the budget.
"I agree with Newt Gingrich that we have a moral imperative to balance the budget for the children of our future...but I think we can do it and still make room for a tax cut," Archer told the Electronic Industries Association Tuesday.
At the same time, Archer said he would have difficulty recruiting support from moderate Republicans who face a "political toll" if they are perceived to be supporting tax cuts for the wealthy.
Domenici, who during the weekend suggested he might push a balanced budget plan with no tax cuts and none of the new spending requested by the White House, said he would gladly accept the invitation to go to the White House today, but indicated tax reductions are still an important part of the mix for him.
"My hope is that in this and subsequent meetings we can lay the foundation for a budget agreement so that the White House and Congress can produce a balanced budget by 2002 while providing tax relief for American families," Domenici said a statement late Tuesday.
And both Archer and House Appropriations Chairman Robert Livingston, R-La., contended the underlying question is not whether but when to have tax cuts.
Clinton's renewed urgency in seeking to resolve the budget impasse was punctuated by his call for an end to the partisan politics that engulfed his nominee to head the CIA, Anthony Lake, who withdrew from consideration late Monday.
"This episode says a lot about how so much work is done in our nation's capital," Clinton said. "The cycle of political destruction must end. And I hope we will let it end today."
All efforts to balance the budget, he said, must be done with full bipartisan cooperation. "I want a balanced budget plan that can win the support of a majority in both parties in both houses," he said.
But Clinton also said that budget must include key ingredients of his own plan to balance the budget by 2002. "This balanced budget plan must be tough and credible," he said. "It must strengthen education and protect the environment and protect health care while extending coverage to more children."
Spratt, meanwhile, said Tuesday evening he is "encouraged" by the president's call to action, and said he also favors having White House and congressional budget aides stay in town during the Easter recess to try to bridge their differences. He said he also planned to stay in Washington then.
Matthew Morrissey contributed to this report.