WASHINGTON -- As White House and congressional leaders escalated their finger-pointing war over the budget yesterday, President Bush's top aide warned of another federal government shutdown this weekend if no deal is reached.
John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, predicted that it would be difficult to work out a budget agreement before midnight Friday, when money for operating the government runs out.
For that reason, he said, the odds of another government shutdown are "probably relatively high."
The House and Senate are expected to pass sharply differing budget reduction plans early this week. The matter will then go to a House-Senate conference committee, which will attempt to resolve the differences.
At that point, Mr. Bush, criticized by congressional leaders for failing to give stronger direction on the fiscal morass recently, would re-enter the negotiations, Mr. Sununu said.
The White House is blaming Congress for the delay in producing a budget plan, but a leading Democrat said yesterday that Mr. Bush's flip-flops over taxes stopped the process for three days last week.
"He changed his mind several times, and I'm not sure where he stands today, frankly," said Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "When he has been able to bring together international forces in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it's a puzzle to see he hasn't been able to bring together the Republicans in the Congress."
Mr. Bentsen, appearing on ABC, said the latest Senate budget proposal, approved early Saturday by the Finance Committee, would be slightly more progressive than the bipartisan budget summit agreement.
The Senate plan, which the White House prefers over the House package, would limit deductions for those earning $100,000 or more but would not increase income tax rates. It also would raise gasoline taxes by 9.5 cents a gallon, increase Medicare premiums and provide tax breaks for oil and gas producers.
Mr. Sununu said the Senate plan was a "much better reference point for reconciliation than the House package."
The House Democrats' plan, which is expected to gain approval by the Democratic-controlled body early this week, would raise taxes on those earning at least $186,000, while going easier on middle-income taxpayers by leaving gasoline taxes unchanged and giving them an extra capital gains tax break.
Vice President Dan Quayle said yesterday that Mr. Bush is "violently opposed" to the House proposal, and a presidential veto is considered almost certain if the final congressional package includes higher income tax rates for the wealthy.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., acknowledged that House Democrats were trying to make a "political statement" with their plan.
"One can certainly recognize that Democrats are for having people share the load of paying taxes," he said on CNN. "And Republicans want to preserve the wealthy's atmosphere and . . . allow them to make more money without paying the corresponding tax."
White House officials took to the airwaves in their continuing public relations offensive against Congress.
Mr. Sununu, on NBC, maintained that Mr. Bush "has stood firm that what he wants is something as close to the summit package as possible."
Mr. Quayle, on CBS, said: "The fact of the matter is that the president has been consistent." He blamed confusion over Mr. Bush's position on two lawmakers, Representative Bill Archer, R-Texas, and Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., who gave their "interpretation of what the president has said" to reporters after White House meetings.
"The president's trying to figure out what's wrong with the Congress so he can get his budget through," Mr. Quayle said.
Mr. Quayle and Mr. Sununu argued that the House Democratic plan would actually increase taxes on the middle class because it would not adjust tax rates for inflation next year.
Mr. Quayle denied that the White House was trying to shift the blame to Congress to deflect attention from the apparent disarray within the administration.
"We don't want to blame anybody," he said. "We just want to point out a few facts to the American people."
The vice president seemed to discount the possibility that Mr. Bush would agree to let Congress delay final action on the budget until a post-election "lame duck" session.
"The president is simply not going to let the Congress go home until they pass a good deficit-reduction package that is going to avoid a recession," Mr. Quayle said.
Although Congress is scheduled to adjourn by this weekend, some legislators are privately predicting that won't happen until Oct. 27, one of the latest election-year adjournments in memory. Members would have only nine days to campaign before the Nov. 6 vote.