WASHINGTON -- Hours after they shook hands on a sweeping, $500 billion deficit-reduction package, President Bush and congressional leaders began the difficult task yesterday of selling their handiwork to wary lawmakers.
The morning after Sunday's announcement, Mr. Bush and his top aides found themselves on the telephone, pleading, cajoling and, in at least one instance, threatening Republican lawmakers reluctant to support the plan, the largest deficit agreement in history.
Meanwhile, Democratic supporters of the package, fighting skepticism within their ranks, urged the president to deliver a television address to convince the nation of the need for such a grim compromise of spending cuts and tax increases.
"It is only the president, going on national TV, who can convince the public it is in their long-term best interest," said Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr., D-Ga. "If he convinces them of that, it will pass."
As lawmakers took their first hard look at the budget plan, Mr. Bush signed a stopgap spending resolution to keep the government running normally through Friday, by which time Congress is supposed to have approved the budget plan.
"Like most compromises, it is certainly not going to satisfy everyone," said the president, who was in New York to give a speech at the United Nations. "But this is the time to move beyond these individual concerns and exercise leadership for the good of the country."
Mr. Bush pledged to lobby Republicans intensively and urged them to abandon partisan enmity to support the agreement at hand. "This is too serious now" for bickering, he said. "The time for this is past."
The bickering continued, however, as one of the negotiators, House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, announced he would oppose the proposed agreement. He complained that the plan would enact permanent tax increases while leaving spending cuts up to Congress to enact in the future. He also said the plan did not contain enough measures to help businesses.
"By raising taxes, this package will lose jobs, raise taxes and deepen the recession," Mr. Gingrich said. "There are far better alternatives . . . and I won't be party to something that could sink the economy."
Mr. Gingrich's sentiments were reflected by other Republicans, particularly in the House, where conservatives, noting that the plan would increase taxes $134 billion and pare the defense budget by as much as $182 billion, wondered whether their president had been snookered by the Democrats.
"We're being blackmailed," said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., referring to the $105.7 billion in automatic budget cuts that will take effect unless the compromise agreement is enacted by Oct. 12. "This is not a package that seriously tackles spending, and I'm not going to be pushed into supporting it."
Democrats, too, have expressed distaste for the package's contemplated $105 billion in spending reductions for benefit programs such as Medicare. They also contend that many of the taxes, such as those on
gasoline and alcohol, fall disproportionately on the poor.
Both the president and the Democratic leaders in Congress have agreed that a majority of members from each party in each House would have to vote to support the package, so as to protect both parties from the political fallout accompanying the passage of such an unpleasant piece of legislation. Both Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., predicted that would happen in the Senate, and House Democratic leaders expressed similar views, although with a bit less certainty.
House Republicans, however, may be a different story. Key members have joined Mr. Gingrich in opposition, and supporters and critics of the package say the president is far from winning a majority.
Indeed, several Republicans yesterday said the administration lost support after statements made by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu at a private meeting yesterday with House Republicans. Mr. Sununu threatened that Mr. Bush would travel to the districts of individual members who opposed the agreement, challenging them to explain their positions to their constituents.