Clinton is winner in budget war with Republicans on Hill President manages to turn GOP cutbacks to his advantage

Gingrich's tactics blamed

By hanging tough, president forced foes into defensive mode

April 26, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As each side takes inventory in the just-concluded budget war between President Clinton and congressional Republicans, GOP leaders can point to $40 billion in saved tax dollars, a significant reordering of federal budget priorities and a promise extracted from the president to balance the budget in seven years.

Then why are Republicans acting so defensively, while the prevailing mood at the White House is one of euphoria?

"I'll tell you why," says Democratic campaign consultant Dane Strother. "This single issue [the budget] has taken him from the doldrums to the hilltops."

Many Republican strategists agree. They blame one culprit or another, ranging from what they characterize as Mr. Clinton's duplicity to flawed tactics pursued by House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Whatever the reason, although the Republicans fought Mr. Clinton to a draw on the substance of the budget, they were outmaneuvered by the president on politics.

Congress yesterday approved the final spending bill of 1996 -- seven months late. The Senate voted 88-11 and the House 399-25 to send President Clinton the $160 billion bill to finance the rest of the fiscal year. Mr. Clinton planned to sign the measure by this morning.

There is more to come: The Democrats are gearing up to do to the Republicans on the minimum wage what they did on Medicare.

Mr. Strother is feeding his candidates a nice campaign line: "Congressmen made more money in salary while they had the government shut down than minimum wage earners make in a year."

Asked about the budget deal yesterday, White House press secretary Mike McCurry swiftly shifted gears, saying, "The Republicans, for some reason, don't believe the working poor deserve a living wage."

The president followed up by calling for negotiations to begin on a longer term agreement than the one-year deal inked yesterday, urging a resumption in the marathon negotiations on how to achieve a seven-year-balanced budget, something he steadfastly opposed until December. "Let's keep it going," Mr. Clinton said. "We have an opportunity. We can't let it slip from our grasp."

Frustrated Republican leaders, who insist the president has never negotiated with them in good faith, responded by ruling out any new talks. Meanwhile, some House freshmen refused to even support the one-year compromise worked out by their leaders.

"It's bad for the American public," said Republican Rep. David M. McIntosh of Indiana. "We shouldn't go along to get along."

Haley Barbour, the GOP national committee chairman, spent the day enumerating what he sees as the Republicans' accomplishments as they battled the president through two government shutdowns and a dozen vetoes.

"The government gets $43 billion less of the hard-earned dollars of America's working families to spend for one simple reason: The Republican Congress refused to let Bill Clinton spend it," Mr. Barbour said. "That amounts to $688 in savings for a family of four."

Mr. Barbour also sought to draw attention to the president's veto of a balanced budget bill that contained generous tax cuts for most families.

"Had Clinton not vetoed the $500 per-child tax credit and tax cuts for economic growth passed by Congress America's working families would already be experiencing, first-hand, the benefits of the Republican agenda," he said yesterday.

But the key for the Democrats was how well the president drew attention to what many voters consider the dark side of the Republican agenda.

Republicans knew that one such issue, Medicare, was risky for them if they tried to curtail spending increases.

Democrats admitted they would use it to rekindle historic fears among voters about the Republicans, namely that they care more about the rich than about working people.

Mr. Barbour and Mr. Gingrich accused Mr. Clinton of "demagoging" the issue. But polls showed that the president was successful in stimulating fear among a segment of elderly voters who rely on this program.

But in private polls and focus groups done by Mr. Clinton's political strategists, three other issues kept coming up again and again: the environment, education and Mr. Clinton's plan to underwrite 100,000 new police officers.

In all three areas, the Republicans were proposing spending cuts that worried voters, a fact the president was not shy about exploiting.

Republicans had pledged to balance the budget in their "Contract with America," and had won at every level in 1994, but as they discovered, reining in spending is more popular as an abstraction than when specific programs are on the chopping block.

Hindsight suggests two miscalculations on the part of GOP leaders. First, their oft-stated view that Mr. Clinton would cave in on the budget proved to be an underestimation of the president.

Second, convinced the public was on their side, they put most of their energy into passing legislation, while putting little effort into explaining their strategy to the nation.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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