WASHINGTON -- Reacting to signs that Republicans may be willing to delay tax cuts, President Clinton yesterday invited congressional leaders to the White House to try to restart negotiations toward a balanced budget.
"We have to seize this opportunity to pass a bipartisan agreement to balance the budget," Clinton said at the White House, where he is resting his injured knee. "There are now some new and hopeful signs that we are in a position to do that."
The president invited leaders of the budget committees to kick off the process with him this morning, before he leaves for a summit in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Clinton proposed that White House and congressional negotiators continue working over the two-week Easter recess that begins this weekend.
The president is trying to take advantage of disarray among congressional Republicans, who are frustrated by what they see as Clinton's failure to cut spending deeply enough but who are also sharply divided among themselves on how best to respond.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich sent a shock wave through his troops Monday when he suggested that Republicans consider delaying their demand for the tax cuts that were once the "crown jewel" of the party's agenda.
Gingrich's suggestion would mean passing a five-year balanced budget plan first, using spending cuts to reduce the deficit. He reckoned that up to 40 conservative Democrats might join the Republicans on such a plan.
A separate package of tax cuts, financed by closing other tax loopholes and perhaps by making additional spending cuts, could follow, the House speaker said.
Republican conservatives in the House and Senate reacted angrily. They contended that if tax cuts were separated from the process of balancing the budget, Republicans might lose their leverage to ever win such tax relief.
Top Republicans who are resisting a delay in tax cuts include Rep. Dick Armey, the House majority leader; Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; and Sen. William V. Roth Jr., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
But a growing number of Republicans are acknowledging that they might have to set their sights lower and perhaps achieve their goals in small bites.
"I think tax cuts are very important, but we don't have to do it all at once," said Sen. Gordon Smith, a freshman Republican from Oregon. "I don't think a tax cut delayed is a tax cut denied."
Most Republicans say they are committed to balancing the budget and cutting taxes. But none wants a repeat of the 1995 showdown with Clinton. Then the public largely blamed them for passing deep budget cuts and for shutting down the government, while the president was perceived as the savior of popular government programs like Medicare.
Democrats, who two years ago were all but ignored by the Republican drive to enact a balanced budget with huge tax cuts, made no attempt yesterday to conceal their amusement at the Republicans' predicament.
"It reminds me of the bad old days of Democrats," said Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate. "It really is a firing squad shooting in a circle here, and I'm not sure just who's shooting at whom and who's ducking and who's getting hit, but it's not a pretty sight."
Republicans are disappointed that Clinton's five-year budget plan puts off the biggest spending-cut decisions until 2001, when he will be out of office. Even at that, his budget falls $69 billion short of erasing the deficit, according to congressional estimates.
The president also rejected Republican entreaties to join in an effort to adjust the Consumer Price Index, which many economists say overstates the true inflation rate. Such an adjustment would reduce cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients.
Yesterday, in a show of party unity, House and Senate Republican leaders declared themselves committed to enacting tax cuts at some point this year.
"In the end, we're going to be saying the same thing," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said. "The process of how we're going to get there is something we're still working on."
Pub Date: 3/19/97