In a generally harmonious beginning, President Clinton and Republican leaders of the new Congress agreed Thursday to search for common ground and said tax relief should be offset by cuts in government spending.
“My job is to work with them and to try to help build this country, and that’s what I’m going to do.” said Clinton, weakened politically by last fall’s GOP election landslide.
“I thought it was a very, very positive meeting overall,” said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, shedding his customary role as one of Clinton’s fiercest critics. He later suggested changes might be possible in some of the proposals contained in the Republicans’ “Contract With America,” declaring, “The world changes.”
For all the talk of harmony, however, there was no mistaking the wariness among longtime political foes.
House Democratic leaders emerged from the session and suggested compromise may not be possible on a tax cut.
“Frankly, we have major differences in who we represent,” said Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, attacking Republican calls for a reduction in the capital gains tax. “They represent the wealthy in this country.”
And Clinton himself, strongly defending his own record of the past two years, took a poke at Republicans in comments to reporters: “My job is not to do what they did. My job is not to stand in the way and be an obstructionist force. My job is not to practice the politics of personal destruction.”
For their part, the GOP unveiled an unusual television commercial highlighting Wednesday’s opening day House reforms. The commercial called these steps “the first step toward smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom.”
The White House session was the first since Congress convened on Wednesday under GOP control for the first time in 40 years. In keeping with their new status, Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole - a potential rival of Clinton’s in 1996 - sat beside the president at the Cabinet Room’s polished wood table.
Afterward, Clinton said he would be pleased to sign the first measure making its way through the new GOP-controlled Congress: a bill to place Congress under antidiscrimination and other laws that apply to private businesses.
He also spoke warmly of two other GOP priorities one measure strengthening his ability to cut spending and another to shield states and local governments from so-called “unfunded mandates.”