Clinton takes economic offensive to the 'enemy' GOP leaders seem split on response


WASHINGTON -- Armed with steady public support for his economic package, President Clinton held his first meetings with Republican congressional leaders who appeared divided over how to respond to the plan.

Nearly two weeks after making his economic package public, Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met yesterday with the Republican House and Senate leadership on Capitol Hill. GOP lawmakers described the discussions with the president as cordial and nonconfrontational.

But the Republicans disagreed over how their party, in the minority in both houses, should deal with Mr. Clinton's efforts to drive his program of tax increases and spending cuts through Congress.

Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, ranking GOP member of the House Budget Committee, suggested that Republicans could join with the president to force more spending cuts over the objections from Democratic liberals.

"I think that one of the big messages out of the meeting with the president indicated that he was frustrated and stymied by a Congress that doesn't really want to cut spending," Mr. Kasich said.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., however, argued that neither the Republicans nor the White House would want to negotiate in the end, calling the disagreements over tax increases and spending cuts between the two camps "fundamental."

But both House Minority leader Robert Michel, R-Ill., and Senate Minority leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., left unclear whether the Republicans would put up their own economic blueprint to compete with Mr. Clinton's. Mr. Michel complained that the White House's failure to provide line-by-line budget figures made such an effort difficult.

On two points, however, Republicans were unified: The need for the president to consult with their leadership before such operations as the Bosnian airdrop and their opposition to attaching health-care reform to the current economic package.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday showed 59 percent of the 1,216 people surveyed nationwide backed Mr. Clinton's proposal, with 62 percent saying it would help the economy.

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