WASHINGTON — With a budget truce revving the government back to life, the White House and congressional Republicans pledged Monday to use December talks to champion divergent spending priorities that have so far been irreconcilable. The GOP signaled possible give on its prized tax cut.
Democrats and Republicans alike seemed relieved that the longest-ever partial federal shutdown was ending, a six-day ordeal that had both parties fearing retribution by disgusted voters. But there was doggedness, too, and White House spokesman Mike McCurry warned, “We’ll be right back where we were” unless the two sides strike a budget deal by mid-December.
A day after bipartisan leaders shook hands on a pact reopening government through Dec. 15, the House overwhelmingly approved the measure 421-4 and shipped it to President Clinton for his signature. The legislation commits both sides to seeking a balanced budget in seven years using congressional economic calculations, which Republicans had demanded for months, and to protect social programs, as the White House insisted. It was approved Sunday by the Senate.
Before recessing for Thanksgiving, the House also gave final congressional blessing to the GOP plan for balancing the budget by 2002 on a mostly party-line 235-192 vote. It would overhaul Medicare, slice scores of programs and trim taxes for millions.
Rep. James B. Longley voted for the plan; Rep. John Baldacci voted against it.
Clinton’s long-promised veto of that measure will serve as the starter’s flag for bargaining that Republican leaders said they hoped would begin next Monday. With those sessions in mind, the GOP prepared to send a letter to Clinton asking that he provide them with a detailed, seven-year budget balancing plan of his own next week.
The president had long said that the GOP’s seven-year, budget balancing timetable would force overly harsh spending cuts. Democrats said Monday that to meet that schedule, the key in upcoming negotiations would be to force Republicans to shrink their planned $245 billion tax break for families and businesses.
“Well, I think that has to be on the table,” responded House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., on NBC’s “Today” program. Trimming the tax cut would make things easier for politicians and bureaucrats, but “harder for parents,” he added.
Both sides said they were mulling plans for the structure of their negotiations. But for now, each stressed that going in, they had achieved what they wanted.
“If we do what we should do between now and Dec. 15, it won’t make any difference who won and who lost,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. But he couldn’t resist adding: “I think we won. We didn’t blink.”
That’s not how Democrats saw it.
“The president got what we wanted,” boasted White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” saying the administration got Republicans to promise to protect Medicare, Medicaid, education, the environment and aid to working families from severe reductions.
Panetta insisted that the administration had surrendered little in accepting the GOP’s timetable, saying it was spending levels for important social programs that really counted. On NBC’s “Today,” he even seemed to hedge a bit on the timetable itself.
“If we can work out an agreement that protects those priorities, we can do it in seven years or eight years,” Panetta said. “But the important thing is protecting those priorities, and that’s what we got in the agreement last night.”
Those remarks infuriated Republicans, who noted that the Sunday agreement called for an elimination of annual deficits “not later than fiscal year 2002.”
“Seven years is not going up,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La. “He committed to seven years last night, and we’re going to hold him to it.”
Though the talk was tough from both sides, it was serene compared with the testy mood that had dominated the Capitol for days. In one indicator of easing tensions, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., apologized to Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., for shoving him Friday just outside the House chamber, saying the parties’ “battle of ideas” should be settled “in a nonviolent way.”
Sunday’s agreement sent about 700,000 federal workers back to their jobs Monday, following another 100,000 who returned earlier as bills financing several agencies were signed. That meant that the Grand Canyon and Smithsonian museums reopened to tourists, the Commerce Department resumed tracking economic statistics, and overseas embassies could issue visas to travelers.
The bill would pay all furloughed federal employees for the work they missed.
The end of the shutdown served both sides’ short-term political purposes. Public opinion polls showed Republicans were being blamed by about 2-to-1 for the crisis. But Democrats were finding it increasingly hard to defend the president’s initial refusal to endorse a seven-year balanced-budget schedule, and the White House worried that it could face an embarrassing defeat in Congress.
Voting against the measure reopening shuttered agencies were Reps. Wes Cooley, R-Ore.; Major Owens, D-N.Y.; Steve Stockman, R-Texas; and Pat Williams, D-Mont.