WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Attempting to allay fears from the states about the impact of proposed federal spending cuts, top Senate Republicans met privately in Washington yesterday with a contingent of Republican governors.
The meeting in the office of Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican leader, came only hours before the governors gathered here for a three-day conference that is expected to focus on the relationship between the states and the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill.
"Our message will be to the Republican congressional leaders and to the people of this country: Give us the ball and then get out of the way. We can solve these problems," Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah, the incoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said at an opening news conference last night.
Republican and Democratic governors have expressed concern about a proposed constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, because of the prospect that Washington would simply dump more problems on the states without the money to pay for them.
"I want to make sure that any balanced budget amendment does not cripple the states," Gov.-elect George W. Bush of Texas said here yesterday. He expressed confidence that with a Republican-controlled Congress problems could be worked out.
Republican leaders of the next Congress have promised to make a balanced budget amendment one of the first items of business.
The measure is given a good chance of passage.
In a television appearance yesterday, four leading Republican governors said they favor requiring the federal government to balance its books -- something most states already must do.
But they stressed that the proposed amendment would not win the needed approval from three-fourths of the states unless it included a provision preventing the federal government from shifting costs to the states. "If you don't get that language into the Constitution, you could run into ratification problems in the state legislatures," Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
For years, governors have complained about the impact on state budgets of "unfunded mandates" -- legal requirements handed down from Washington without enough money to pay for them -- on everything from environmental protection to welfare.
"Over the last eight years, most of the states have had problems balancing the budget . . . because of mandates on Medicare and Medicaid coming from Washington," said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.
Mr. Thompson, who took part in yesterday's meeting with the senators, said that "it's not going to be easy" to protect the states if Washington slashes spending.
But he said GOP leaders in Congress "really want to work with us."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who is in line to take over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has drafted language that would bar the federal government from issuing unfunded mandates to states and localities. His provision enjoys wide support among state governors.
Mr. Dole said before the meeting that the senators plan "to level with" the governors and tell them that balancing the federal budget "may mean that some of these burdens the federal government never should have had will go back to the states."
Sorting out the new federal-state relationship is the main thrust of this week's governors conference in Williamsburg, the first big GOP gathering since the midterm election. A flock of 1996 Republican presidential hopefuls is expected to be on hand, giving this usually low-profile event the feel of a national Republican mini-convention.
A total of 30 Republican governors will be in office next year, up from 18 now. "Maybe 31," host Gov. George Allen of Virginia told reporters yesterday, referring to the presence here of Maryland's Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who has refused to concede defeat.
Mrs. Sauerbrey, who had been invited to attend before most Maryland absentee ballots were counted, is being treated at the meeting as a governor-elect. However, a brochure put out by the Republican Governors Association, which provides biographical information about the new governors, makes no mention of the Maryland Republican.
She appeared on stage with other governors and governors-elect at yesterday's opening news conference and took part in a private governors-only meeting.
Chris Hennick, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, defended the inclusion of Mrs. Sauerbrey by noting that the Maryland election has not officially been certified, something that is expected to happen later this week. "It ain't over till it's over," he remarked.