Americans hire a president and a Congress to work out a federal budget, but on Tuesday the nation’s leaders apparently threw in the towel and, in effect, appealed to the people to tell them which way to go.
Neither side in the marathon budget talks felt it could move further toward a compromise - not because of the billions of dollars at stake, but because their own political identities were on the line.
Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the people elected them to balance the budget, cut spending and lower taxes. President Clinton said the people wanted him to balance the budget but also to defend Medicare and other social programs against deep cuts in future spending.
So, like contract negotiators unsure how far their clients are willing to move, they decided to go back to their constituents and ask.
At the same time, fearing the voters’ wrath over a continued deadlock, each side insisted that it had already gone the extra mile toward compromise.
“The rhetoric has gotten more temperate, but the results have gotten less satisfactory,” noted Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “There’s more concern here about who comes out looking good than any domestic negotiation I can remember. It’s nice that these guys have gotten to know each other better, but the voters want an agreement.”
“At this point, they’ve got to go back and poll their constituencies and get a sense of where they can move,” he said. “The problem is, the constituencies they’re addressing seem to be those with die-hard views: the Democrats who say ‘Protect all entitlements,’ and the Republicans who say ‘Protect all the tax cuts.”’
Clinton plans to press his argument that the main obstacle in the way of a budget is the Republicans’ refusal to scale down their tax cuts.Dole and Gingrich intend to publicize their version of the talks, which argues that the GOP has already scaled back its tax cut proposals by 50 percent.
Clinton said the GOP was still demanding “cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that we believe are well beyond what is necessary.” The Republicans say their cuts - actually, limits on the future growth of spending - are needed to bring those health programs under control.
“What remains is, if you will, the ideological differences over the size and shape of the tax cut and over the size and character of the changes in Medicare and Medicaid and the investments in education and the environment,” Clinton said - in other words, the core of the argument.
Likewise, Dole said there had been useful discussions of alternative budget numbers, but added: “It’s not a debate about numbers. It’s a debate about policies promoting a better, more prosperous future - and failed policies of the past.”
One lesson all parties absorbed from the bruising battles of the past two months - in which Gingrich and his House Republicans managed to turn a winning majority into a reputation for sour obstructionism - was that the public wants its leaders to be seeking compromise.
House Republican Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said he wants to take the GOP budget to a vote on the House floor - a move that would largely cement the Republicans to their current position.
Meanwhile, Clinton said he of fered the Republicans a last-minute proposal for a smaller tax cut that he portrayed as a possible breakthrough - but GOP aides dismissed it as an insincere “grandstand play.”
At the end of their news conference on Tuesday, both Republican leaders sounded a little bleak.
A reporter asked whether they felt any real progress had been made, and Dole shrugged.
“I think some,” he said flatly. “Don’t you, Newt?”
The speaker paused for a long moment, and shrugged too.
“Some,” he repeated.