Lott: Time for Budget Plan B

As budget talks with the White House languish, Republicans now want to strike a budget deal with moderate congressional Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said on Monday.

Although Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., this weekend said there is some hope for a deal with the Clinton administration, Lott was more pessimistic, saying, "No progress has been made." Lott said if a budget deal with President Clinton is not possible, "you just have to go to the next plan."

That plan calls for Republicans to try to cut a deal with The Coalition, a group of moderate and conservative House Democrats better known as the "Blue Dogs," or with the bipartisan Senate group led by Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and John Chafee, R-R.I., Lott said. He said Republicans are being criticized by Democrats for not having brought a budget to the floor yet, adding, "We're going to need to bring something to the floor on the budget."

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, R-S.D., Monday said he would oppose the Blue Dog budget in its current form, in part because he objects to changing the consumer price index calculation outside the Bureau of Labor Statistics or a special commission. But he complimented the Blue Dogs for having the "courage" to propose a balanced budget plan.

Daschle also said Democrats have wanted to start substantive budget meetings for weeks. "It's not any real new brilliant proposal for strategy," Daschle said of Lott's plan. "How is it that [Lott] expects to resolve these issues if we don't start the process?"

Daschle said the "best approach" is to hold a Budget Committee markup in which both sides vote on amendments to the president's budget, some of which Daschle said he might support. "I don't see why we couldn't start this week," he said.

Lott said he does not want to drop the GOP plan for a tax cut as part of the budget, saying, "It is not my intent to have a plan that does not have some tax relief for American working families." But he added that "nothing is off the table."

He said that for major reforms of federal programs to be part of a budget deal, Clinton must be willing to "take the risks." Lott said spending cuts must not be as backloaded, as in Clinton's budget, and triggers to phase out tax cuts or increase spending cuts remain a "concern." Lott also said Clinton cannot insist on $60 billion in new entitlement programs or on using OMB economic figures.

In exchange, Republicans might be willing to compromise a bit on Congressional Budget Office figures, although Lott conceded House Budget Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, strongly opposes that.

Lott said the administration cannot stipulate shifting home health care costs in the Medicare program, must change its tax plan and must make concessions on entitlement reform. Lott added, however, that if the administration does not take the lead on larger Medicare and Medicaid reforms, Republicans may be willing to accept the administration's level of savings.

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