White House talks to balance the budget and end the government shutdown fell apart Wednesday in a spectacular outburst of partisan rhetoric and a virtual mutiny among many House Republicans over the way the negotiations were headed.
The breakdown once again raised the possibility that the two sides may be unable to overcome their deep philosophical differences and reach an accord that would balance the budget in seven years.
But it also revealed deep fissures within Republican ranks over how to negotiate with a Democratic president and whether to compromise with him at all, guaranteeing that the balanced-budget fight will be even messier and more contentious than previously thought.
Failure to reach an agreement on a stopgap spending bill also assured that veterans’ benefits checks due to be sent to more than 3 million veterans and survivors on Jan. 1 will be delayed, the White House said. Congress began working on a bill Wednesday night to permit the veterans’ benefits checks to be mailed.
And if there is no spending deal by Friday, welfare checks for 13 million recipients will be delayed.
A frustrated President Clinton aborted high-level negotiations with Republican leaders scheduled to begin Wednesday.
Clinton’s advisers said the talks would have reopened the government as early as today and possibly would have yielded a broad budget agreement by the end of the week.
In an apparent reference to GOP freshmen, the president blamed “the most extreme members” of the House for rejecting the agreement he had reached Tuesday with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan.
He indicated that Gingrich had lost control of Republican members who insisted the government be kept closed until a budget deal was reached.
“What they really want to do is end the role of the federal government in our life,” Clinton said, adding that he would not “yield to these threats.”
He said he would do his part to end the impasse.
“The thing you have to have in this business is, when you say you’re going to do something, it has to be that way,” he said in a shot at Republicans.
While Clinton criticized Republican extremism in one breath, he praised Dole for his cooperation in trying to end the budget deadlock.
The president spoke with Dole three times Wednesday to try to find ways to get the talks restarted.
The stock market responded negatively Wednesday, dropping some 50 points in the final minutes of trading when word of the breakdown spread.
Preliminary talks between the White House and GOP leaders will resume Thursday morning.
House Republican freshmen said they didn’t trust the White House to produce a credible balanced budget unless they kept the heat on Clinton by refusing to reopen the government.
Despite White House assertions, Gingrich said he had not agreed to reopen the government while the White House budget talks were continuing.
After a White House meeting on Tuesday, Clinton, Dole and Gingrich hoped for an intense negotiating session that would have settled their budget differences.
Clinton dispatched his chief of staff, Leon Panetta, to Capitol Hill Wednesday to lay the groundwork for the talks with the chairmen of the two budget committees, Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
But the talks did not go well as the GOP revolt mushroomed, and White House officials said Gingrich told Panetta he could not keep the House freshmen in line.
The attitude of the younger GOP conservatives was exemplified by Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, who said the unyielding stance of the freshmen stemmed from both a distrust of the president’s motives and their own conviction that the quest for a balanced budget is essentially a moral crusade.
“We’ve seen no indication on the part of the administration that they’re willing to negotiate in good faith,” Tiahrt said. “This could be our last, best hope to get a balanced budget. If we don’t get it now, it could slip through our fingers. This is what we came here for. … It’s both a moral and an economic duty.”
The freshmen are also convinced that Clinton is intent on slashing the size of their treasured tax cut so that he can spend more for Medicare and Medicaid.
“The $500-per-child tax credit and the capital gains cut are non-negotiable,” said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Lawmakers said they were disturbed by remarks by Vice President Al Gore - remarks later disavowed by the White House - that seemed to undercut Gingrich’s description of the tentative agreement. So they moved quickly to restrain Gingrich’s negotiating ability.
“We gave him (Gingrich) any option he wanted yesterday (Tuesday),” said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., a moderate who is adamant on eliminating the deficit. “He doesn’t have that option now.”
During the partisan ping-pong match on Wednesday, the debate was chiefly about tactics, about when to reopen the government and under what conditions. But underlying the back and forth is a fundamental disagreement between both sides on the size of tax cuts, how to restrain costs in Medicare and Medicaid, and on the role of government in education and the economy.