WASHINGTON -- As congressional budget negotiators wrangled over the last remaining questions in the deficit-reduction deal, Republican and Democratic leaders spent yesterday counting noses and wondering if there would be enough votes to pass the package.
Nevertheless, leaders of both parties predicted the deficit bill would win the support of a majority of lawmakers, thus ending the months-long budget standoff that has mesmerized official Washington.
"I think it's going to happen," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill.
Although a number of issues remained to be resolved yesterday, none seemed to threaten the package, which would cut the deficit by $250 billion through a combination of tax increases and spending reductions, and which would form the centerpiece of an anticipated $500 billion reduction in the deficit over the next five years.
After initial hesitation, administration officials threw their support behind the deal. President Bush signed a stopgap money bill yesterday to provide the government with funds through tomorrow, at which point lawmakers are supposed to have adopted the legislation needed to implement the budget agreement and provide the government with the spending authority it needs to operate through the rest of the fiscal year.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the president liked the deal. Mr. Bush himself commented only, "Feel good about it," when asked on a morning jog how he felt about the package.
Later, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Budget Director Richard G. Darman met with House Republicans behind closed doors in an effort to sell the package. Mr. Sununu assured the assembled Republicans that the president would stand behind them no matter which way they voted on the budget -- a marked contrast to his last appearance before the Republican conference, when he threatened to travel to the districts of members who voted against the package to personally challenge their stances.
"The Republicans are on speaking terms again," exulted Representative Steve Gunderson, R-Wis. Commented Representative Vin Weber, R-Minn.: "It was the soft sell."
As card-carrying conservatives committed to opposing tax increases, both Mr. Weber and Mr. Gunderson say they will oppose this budget deal just as they opposed last month's budget summit agreement.
Representative Michel, however, said he was counting on about 50 of the 175 House Republican votes for the package. That meant majority Democrats would have to produce about 170 votes from their 258 members for the bill to pass. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., predicted that it would.
Even as leaders from both parties lined up votes, the back-and-forth of the legislative process continued into the evening. Senate negotiators sought to tinker with some of the aspects of Wednesday's tentative deal, proposing to increase the gas tax slightly, reduce the bite of a contemplated phase-out of the personal exemption and stiffen the suggested limit on deductions.
The plan unveiled Wednesday would reduce deductions available to taxpayers earning more than $100,000 annually by 3 percent. For individual filers, it would phase out the $2,050 personal exemption by 2 percent for each $2,500 increment over $100,000 and, for couples and families, for incomes over $150,000.
Yesterday, the Senate proposed reducing deductions by 4 percent for taxpayers earning over $125,000 and phasing out the personal exemption by 1 percent for each $2,500 increment.
Likewise, Wednesday's plan calls for a 5-cent increase in the current 9-cent federal gas tax. Yesterday, the Senate proposed increasing that by an additional 2 cents during the next two years if oil prices fall to $24 a barrel.
Both alterations were expected to run into resistance from the House, which had fought an increased gas tax and had initially opposed deduction limits on grounds that they penalized wage earners in high-tax states.
The Senate offered a critical concession yesterday, however, when it agreed to trim Medicare by $42.8 billion over the next half-decade. That was the level that had been advanced by the House, compared to the $50 billion cut the Senate had proposed earlier.