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Budget Battle Becomes Battle Of Wills

For all the polls and high-blown strategy, this latest round of budget brinkmanship is driven by some strikingly personal assessments: Who will blink first, and why.

House Republican leaders talk about President Clinton as a man without a core of beliefs, driven by political calculations and public opinion polls. Even as they complain about his unwillingness to negotiate, some Republicans say they assume it is only a matter of time before he yields and signs some version of their balanced budget plan.

As Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, the Budget Committee chairman, cheerfully put it last week, “I think the president will be forced to move toward us, and at the end of the day he will explain why he made our program reasonable while signing our program.”

Kasich has taken to citing “High Noon” as his inspiration, and there is little doubt that he sees the heroic, steadfast sheriff as a Republican.

But “High Noon,” as it turns out, is also the president’s favorite movie. The White House is aware that the president’s image as an eager compromiser in the face of confrontation makes him vulnerable at a time like this.

In purely political terms, Democratic strategists say it is very much to the president’s advantage to stand fast in this showdown with a Congress that many Americans see as going too far.

The administration smells a different kind of weakness among congressional Republicans. “My assessment of them is that they’re most worried about their own caucuses right now,” said George Stephanopoulos, a White House adviser. “They’re facing the fact that their program is very unpopular with the American people, and their members are coming under a great deal of pressure, and it’s becoming a very difficult task to just keep their caucuses together.”

But Tony Blankley, Gingrich’s press secretary, said those waiting for the “wheels to come off” the Republican revolution will wait a long time.

“They’ve been working under this illusion that there’s a moment where we somehow break faith with our commitments, and that moment is never going to come.”Gingrich is more circumspect on the subject. Asked if his strategy was based on the calculation that the president would blink, Gingrich replied, no, it was based on the calculation that the Republicans would not blink.

All these assessments, of course, are being made across a divide much greater than the 10-minute drive that separates the White House and Capitol Hill. What is striking is the amount of personal animosity between the two branches.

In the space of a few moments at a news conference Friday, Gingrich knocked the president’s educational background, veracity and willingness to work.

For their part, Republicans were still fuming over White House chief of staff Leon Panetta’s description of their budget strategy as a form of terrorism.

Tags: analysis