WASHINGTON -- The politics of the federal budget turned upside down yesterday, with liberal Democrats in Congress quietly fuming about President Clinton's new balanced budget proposal and Republican leaders eagerly starting negotiations with White House officials.
Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised Mr. Clinton for accepting the principles of balancing the budget by a certain date and for seeking to cut taxes, contain domestic spending and lower the rate of growth for Medicare.
Mr. Gingrich dismissed the president's call to balance the budget in 10 years -- instead of seven, as Republicans propose -- as "a nonstarter." But he added that Republicans might be able to include in their plan "10, 15 or 20 good ideas" from Mr. Clinton's budget plan.
"It would be both irresponsible and irrational for us to reject that opportunity," Mr. Gingrich said. "Maybe we can put together a Republican and moderate Democrat coalition with the president."
A day after Mr. Clinton's decision to answer GOP plans to balance the budget with his own "counter-budget," politicians from the White House to the Capitol struggled with its implications.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill had urged the president not to get into balanced budget negotiations with the Republicans. Instead, they said, the party's interests -- and its traditional constituents -- would be better served by having the president attack unpopular GOP budget trims, especially those in Medicare, and use his veto power, if necessary, when the spending bills reached his desk.
In part, this strategy seemed to be paying off: A new Times-Mirror poll shows that this month, for the first time since last November's Republican election victory, fewer than half of the Americans surveyed pronounced themselves "happy" that the Republicans control Congress.
The Democrats' argument that the Republicans are seeking to balance the budget on the backs of the working class and retirees seems to be a key reason. Among those who have followed the Medicare debate closely, Americans disapproved of Republicans by a whopping 2-1 margin, the poll found.
Nonetheless, White House aides said, the president harbored doubts about a strategy of simply excoriating the Republicans while losing every congressional vote to them. For one thing, the forecasting abilities of the congressional Democrats proved suspect. Marching in virtual lock step, the Republicans easily passed the very budgets that Democrats said they couldn't pass.
Increasingly, White House aides said, the president was
uncomfortable staying on the sidelines: He worried that he would seem out of touch with the public's desire for a balanced budget. He also expressed discomfort with the prospect of having to shut the government down in September or October, which would occur if he vetoed the Republican budget bills.
"The president has a responsibility to our nation that's fundamentally different from the responsibility of those who serve in the Congress," Vice President Al Gore said yesterday. "He cannot simply criticize the things that he doesn't like. He must lead."
The president made the same point in a photo session.
"I don't believe it's right for the Democrats to kind of overreact to the last election," Mr. Clinton said. "I'm sympathetic with the Democratic position . . . but I do not believe that's the appropriate position for the president."
Mr. Clinton said he knew there were those who thought that this budget was offered at the wrong time. But he urged lawmakers to go beyond tactics to the substance of his proposals, which he said would achieve a balanced budget in a slightly longer period without nearly the pain.
"If you look at the details of our proposal compared with theirs, I think ours is going to stand up very, very well," Mr. Clinton said. "And that's why I have urged all members to look at the details, look at the facts before they reach a final judgment."
This is precisely what the chairmen of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, and the House Budget Committee, John R. Kasich of Ohio, pledged to do yesterday when they sat down with White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and Budget Director Alice M. Rivlin.
By contrast, Democrats who had attacked the president the day before were lying low.
Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, had ridiculed the president Tuesday for flip-flopping on the budget. Yesterday, after he had read the budget, Mr. Obey declined all requests for interviews.
Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, said the president's new stance "confuses" the politics of the budget for the Democrats. Speaking for many, he said he feared that Mr. Clinton would reap the worst of both worlds for his party: that in his conciliatory tone, the president would mute the Democrats' harsh criticism of Republicans -- but would never receive sufficient credit for balancing the budget, a longtime GOP theme.
The top two Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill rallied behind a budget-balancing policy they had opposed.
"While there may have been some differences about when the president makes this statement, when he lays out the alternative, there is absolutely no disagreement about joining together to propose a right way to do things," said the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt bit his lip, too. "I commend the president for coming forward and leading on a very tough set of issues," the Missouri Democrat said. "He is the president of the United States; he is trying to come up with solutions to this deficit problem. Timing matters are momentary -- they really don't matter."