ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE -- A self-imposed deadline came and went yesterday as White House officials began blaming congressional leaders for the latest failure to agree on a deficit-denting budget plan.
"I am not heartened by the progress of the talks," said Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady. "Congress simply does not seem able to get its act together."
Mr. Brady's comments, offered on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" before yesterday's bargaining session began, drew a quick retort from House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who labeled the comments a "blame assessment that is improper and wrong."
"I remain confident we will get an agreement," Mr. Foley said, thoughhe conceded that such an agreement could remain elusive until the end of the month. "While some progress has been made, there was a hope that we would make more by this time," he said.
In fact, budget talks have limped along inconclusively since May, when negotiators first sat down in an effort to hammer out an agreement that would carve $50 billion from the budget deficit, which is expected to hit a record $250 billion in the upcoming fiscal year.
On Friday, the negotiators sequestered themselves in the officer's club here, 10 miles from the jangling telephones and omnipresent distractions of the Capitol. Working through the weekend, participants set out to accomplish by yesterday what they had been unable to achieve during the previous 84 days of bargaining: a deal that would bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans over the sorts of tax increases and spending cuts in domestic and defense programs needed to narrow the government's budget shortfall.
By all accounts, that effort has failed.
"I would say the talks are going nowhere fast," Mr. Brady said.
One Democratic official, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed with that assessment. "Everyone's talking past each other. It's very depressing."
With little progress to report, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., the Democrats' chief negotiator, canceled a scheduled White House meeting with President Bush.
"We're still hopeful, but it's looking less and less optimistic" for a quick agreement, said the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater.
Participants had begun to talk about finishing their work in time for President Bush's scheduled speech tonight before a special joint session of Congress. Before the latest round of talks began, however, bargainers said they would have to hammer out a deal by yesterday if Congress were to have time to enact it by Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 1991.
Without a deficit-reduction plan, the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law will automatically impose cuts in federal programs, slashing the government's $1.2 trillion budget by roughly $100 billion. Democrats and Republicans alike contend that a cut of that magnitude would further undermine an already soggy economy.
"I'm optimistic that we'll get a deal at some point," Mr. Brady said. "I'm not optimistic that these particular talks will produce it in time."