WASHINGTON -- With balanced budget talks again on the verge of collapse, President Clinton and key Republican lawmakers agreed to resume discussions today, in hopes of reaching a deal that would end a six-day partial government shutdown.
House Republicans, increasingly angry at the lack of progress toward reaching a balanced budget, had nearly derailed the talks yesterday when they refused to provide temporary spending for the shuttered agencies.
"We are tired of talking about talking and negotiating about negotiating," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican. "We've wasted so much time, and nothing has happened."
The 260,000 idled federal employees, who are in the midst of the second furlough in a month, received assurances from Republican leaders that they would eventually be paid. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had earlier expressed doubts about such back pay after some House members said their constituents complained about paying people for not working.
Congressional leaders also last night passed and sent to Mr. Clinton an emergency bill that would assure that veterans' benefit checks go out on schedule at the end of the month.
The president had said that if the legislation did not pass by today, benefit checks would be delayed for 3.3 million veterans and their survivors. The Department of Veterans Affairs is among the agencies whose spending authority has not been approved by Congress.
But it appeared that the partial government shutdown would continue for at least a few more days, until a majority of House Republicans are convinced that Mr. Clinton is serious about making the necessary cuts in projected spending to balance the budget by 2002.
"We lost a little ground today," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole told reporters after Mr. Clinton canceled a negotiating session yesterday.
The president angrily complained that House Republicans were trying to force him into making unacceptable concessions before the bargaining begins. But Mr. Dole and Mr. Gingrich spoke to the president and agreed to put the budget talks back on track.
"There will be little bumps in the road now and then," Mr. Dole added. He was optimistic that a deal could be reached, he said.
Yesterday's dust-up was a demonstration of how difficult it is to negotiate when the stakes are so high and the interests of the negotiating parties are in such apparent conflict.
House Republicans, led by a huge class of conservative freshmen, see the balanced budget deal as the key to their drive to shrink the federal government and reverse six decades of social activism. Using the partial shutdown of government agencies for leverage, they are trying to pressure Mr. Clinton to agree to a plan for balancing the budget over seven years, based on economic projections by the Congressional Budget Office.
But Mr. Clinton has resisted a flat commitment to the CBO figures. He says those figures are too pessimistic and would force the government to squeeze health, education and other social programs more deeply than necessary to balance the budget.
After a meeting of Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Dole and the president Tuesday night, the Republican leaders reported that they finally had an agreement with Mr. Clinton to base budget talks on CBO figures and to work toward a New Year's deadline for a deal. But Vice President Al Gore appeared shortly thereafter and said that no such promises had been made, and that there had been "a slight misunderstanding" among the Republican leaders.
House Republicans exploded in frustration at those comments and voted yesterday not to allow the government to reopen until they were satisfied that real progress was being made toward reaching a budget deal.
Many Republicans, particularly the freshmen, say they think were snookered by Mr. Clinton when they passed the first temporary spending bill last month because he never followed through with the budget offer they expected.
"We're not going to be fooled twice," said Rep. Lindsay Graham, a GOP freshman from South Carolina. Mr. Clinton contended yesterday that a small minority of "extreme" House members had, in effect, reneged on an agreement he had with Mr. Dole and Mr. Gingrich "to work together in good faith to balance the budget and to reopen the government.
"These Republicans want to force the government to stay closed until I accept their deep and harmful cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, in education, in the environment to pay for their very large tax cut," the president said.
But Mr. Shays, a moderate, disputed Mr. Clinton's contention that a rump band of Republicans was now calling the shots in the House. "This is not just a freshman thing," he said. "And moderates feel just as strongly about this as conservatives."
He added, however, that Mr. Gingrich can no longer make a unilateral decision for the House about when the government should reopen.
For his part, the House speaker contended that the specter of a long-term shutdown would not be an issue if Mr. Clinton would be fully engaged in the process. Mr. Gingrich said that he, the president and Mr. Dole could reach a budget deal within three or four days if they would "roll up their sleeves" and get to it.
Despite their anger toward the administration, House Republicans were feeling more kindly yesterday toward furloughed federal workers, according to Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican.
Mrs. Morella was among several Republicans representing large contingents of federal employees who secured the written pledge from Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dole to provide back pay for those now forced to take time off.