Capping a yearlong feud, the Clinton administration and Republican lawmakers prepared to begin budget talks Tuesday, expressing hope that a deal could be struck but warning of tough bargaining ahead.
Facing a possible Dec. 16 replay of this month’s six-day partial federal shutdown, negotiators were to gather in a wood-paneled Capitol room and seek a pact for balancing the budget by 2002. President Clinton’s goal was to temper GOP plans to extract savings from Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, education and environmental programs, and to shrink the Republican $245 billion tax cut for many families and businesses.
Clinton lunched with Democratic senators in the Capitol and told them he wants to strike a deal, participants said.
“He said he owes the American people his best efforts to do everything he can to bridge the gaps,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. But Clinton also promised to fend off proposed savings from Medicare and other social programs, saying, “People will fall through the safety net in droves” under Republican plans, according to Reid.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., called the chances of reaching an agreement by Dec. 15 “at least 50-50. I’m hopeful.”
Tuesday’s opening session was expected to focus on the structure and timetable for the talks. Until the last minute, even the number of bargainers was unsettled: Republicans wanted four on each side, Democrats wanted more.
As a prelude, Clinton invited leaders of both parties to the White House to discuss the budget and Bosnia before he flew to Europe. Prior to that, White House aides sounded notes of caution.
“It’s not going to be easy. There are large differences here,” acknowledged chief of staff Leon Panetta.
And on Fox television’s “Morning News,” White House spokesman Mike McCurry cited philosophical differences over the government’s role in American life.