WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and congressional Republicans danced around each other yesterday like partners unwilling to embrace but reluctant to walk away.
Invited by the GOP to his first Republicans-only meeting since taking office, Mr. Clinton knows he needs the loyal opposition. And the Republicans know they need him.
Mr. Clinton probably can't pass his dramatic economic and health care reform proposals without at least a few Republican votes. And the Republicans -- who split up into Senate and House sessions yesterday -- have to appear as if they are trying to help solve the nation's problems or risk being blamed if no progress is made.
In the Senate, where the partisan byplay has its sharpest focus, Mr. Clinton was treated to a lunch of a McDonald's Big Mac and fries by more than two dozen Republicans struggling to find their place in the debate over the president's economic plan.
Various speakers raised their objections to Mr. Clinton's proposals to raise $360 billion in energy, income and other taxes, deeply cut defense spending and push through another $178 billion in new spending rather than devote all the savings to cutting the deficit.
House members, who have also criticized the president's economic plan for being too reliant on tax increases, said Mr. Clinton told them at a later meeting that he had wanted to make deeper spending cuts but feared the Democratic majority in Congress would not support him.
"The president indicated he was frustrated and stymied by a Congress that doesn't want to cut spending," said Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. "He's got a [Democratic] constituency here on the Hill that won't take as deep cuts as we can here on the Republican side."
Mr. Clinton mostly just listened, and turned the talk to issues on which he said he hopes they could find common ground, such as student loans, national service, welfare reform and reform of government, according to Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho.
With 43 votes on their side -- enough to prevent the Democrats from choking off a filibuster -- the GOP is a force that Mr. Clinton cannot afford to write off.
There are also enough early signs of possible Democratic defections that Mr. Clinton may actually need Republican votes to get his proposals through.
Alabama Democrat Richard C. Shelby, for example, says he has "deep reservations with the tax increases," particularly the energy tax, which he believes would disproportionately affect his state.
The Clinton administration moved last week to punish Mr. Shelby for his opposition by transferring a management contract for the space shuttle out of his state to Texas -- a discipline that cost Alabama 90 jobs and was intended to send a sharp message to Mr. Shelby.
An angry Mr. Shelby held his ground yesterday, insisting that his vote "is not for sale."
The GOP, grown accustomed over 12 years to relying on a Republican White House to call its legislative plays, has failed so far to produce a plan for wielding its leverage effectively.
For example, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas said yesterday morning in a television interview that GOP support for Mr. Clinton's economic package could come if he's serious about wanting to negotiate.
Later, Trent Lott of Mississippi, secretary of the Senate Republican Conference, said he didn't believe the GOP should negotiate with the Democratic president.
"At this point, it would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle," he said.
Sen. Hank Brown of Colorado presented Mr. Clinton with a list of $678 billion worth of cuts, but Mr. Dole said they are not Republican cuts, but "official Brown" cuts.
Similarly, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia suggested that Mr. Clinton could save $3 billion this year alone if he would eliminate the controversial space station and Supercollider projects from the budget.
But Mr. Clinton offered "equal time" to Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, whose state would feel the loss of both projects, "and there was dead silence," Mr. Warner reported.
Although the Republicans all have broad philosophical objections to Mr. Clinton's proposals, many believe their best hope is to reshape his program on the margins.
For example, the Republicans joined with conservative and moderate Democrats to spark a public outcry against Mr. Clinton's $30 billion stimulus package that convinced the White House to move that element of the plan off the front burner.
"I think he's going to be a lot like Muhammad Ali," Mr. Lott said of the president.
"You might be able to pop him once, but he will back off and change his approach. I think he will change things a lot before he's through and be able to pick up a few Republican votes."