Clinton, Gop Exchange Words, Indicating Long Budget Conflict

Asserting that the people are on their side, Republican congressional leaders pledged Wednesday to pursue their balanced-budget, tax-cut agenda and defied President Clinton to oppose them.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, joined by other top Republicans, listed their party’s premier priorities for this fall as balancing the budget in seven years, protecting Medicare from the bankruptcy its trustees have predicted, revamping welfare and providing tax cuts for families and businesses. For each, they told reporters, polls show overwhelming public support.

Dole said Clinton either can be a “roadblock” or “seize the opportunity to join the American people and the Republican Congress in steering our government in sort of a revolutionary direction. And in my view, that’s the course he should choose.”

“I’m going to stick with my position,” Clinton fired back, telling reporters that it would be the Republicans’ fault if a clash over priorities results in an autumn shutdown of non-essential government services. Clinton has proposed balancing the budget in nine years with smaller reductions in Medicare, Medicaid and other programs than Republicans have proposed and with less generous tax cuts.

The rhetorical exchange marked the beginning of what is likely to be a long, contentious autumn of budget conflict between Republicans and Clinton. Republicans are eager to deliver on promises of a smaller government that can balance its books, while Clinton wants to be seen as fiscally responsible yet compassionate.

The one area where GOP leaders have offered an olive branch is on Medicare, which provides health insurance for the elderly and the disabled. It is the most politically sensitive program on the chopping block, and it also is the biggest contributor to the GOP’s plans to trim spending and balance the budget by 2002.

Echoing a theme Republicans have voiced before, Dole and Gingrich said Clinton should join them quickly in seeking a bipartisan accord for shrinking the program’s projected growth.

“We are open at any point the president would like to sit down and talk about saving Medicare to having that conversation,” Gingrich said.

The remarks came as lawmakers resumed work after an August recess, with the House debating a bill financing Congress’ own operations and the Senate approving legislation mapping defense programs for next year.

Members of both parties spent the time off seeking public support for their competing positions on Medicare reductions.

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