Clinton admits tax mistake, but still blames Republicans Leaders on both sides perplexed by views


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, in two recent little-noticed speeches, has said the 1993 tax increases he proposed and shepherded through Congress were too high.

But in an interpretation that left congressional leaders in both parties flabbergasted, Mr. Clinton blamed Republicans for it.

"In the first week I showed up in Washington, the leaders of the minority in Congress -- who are now the majority leader and the speaker of the House -- told me that I would not get one [Republican] vote for my budget no matter what I did," Mr. Clinton told a business group in Williamsburg, Va., on Friday night. "As a consequence, I had to raise your taxes more and cut spending less than I wanted to, which made a lot of you furious."

On Monday night, at a $1,000-a-plate presidential fund-raiser in Houston, Mr. Clinton made the same assertion.

"Probably there are people in this room still mad at me at that budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. It might surprise you to know that I think I raised them too much, too."

Mr. Clinton said Republican leaders, Sen. Bob Dole and Rep. Newt Gingrich, "were very candid. They said, 'We want to be in a position to blame you if the economy continues to go down. And if it goes up, we want to be in a position to attack you for raising taxes."

In fact, Republicans in Congress did vote in a solid bloc against the budget and later attacked Mr. Clinton for raising taxes. But few on Capitol Hill involved in the bruising budget battles of 1993 remember it exactly as Mr. Clinton does.

"It verges on being out of touch with reality," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "You really have to wonder, what is he thinking of?"

The scenario recalled by both Mr. Gingrich -- and some of Mr. Clinton's allies in the budget fight -- was this:

* In 1992, Mr. Clinton pledged in virtually every campaign speech raise taxes on wealthy Americans. It was also the first solution proposed in his campaign booklet "Putting People First."

* In his first budget proposal, Mr. Clinton made good on that pledge. He also included a broad-based energy tax, called a Btu tax, which was attacked by Republicans and energy-state Democrats and later replaced with a much smaller, 4.5 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax.

* The White House rebuffed attempts by Rep. John Kasich, an Ohio Republican, and Rep. Tim Penny, a Minnesota Democrat, to include more spending cuts. The budget then passed by a narrow margin in the House and by an even closer margin in the Senate, where Vice President Al Gore was needed to break a tie.

Until now, Mr. Clinton has spoken with pride about that budget, which he has said resulted in lower annual federal deficits, a positive reaction from the financial markets, a broad economic recovery and a more equitable tax structure that required the well-off to pay "their fair share."

His new sentiments, however, prompted scorn among Republicans and dismay among some Democrats. Republicans said the president wasn't telling the truth. Democrats defended the priorities of that budget.

"I confess to my distress at the president's statement that we raised taxes too much," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat from New York and former chairman of the Finance Committee. "The president, in retrospect, says he made a mistake. But I think we did the right thing."

Republican Party chief Haley Barbour denounced Mr. Clinton's recent interpretation as a "fairy tale [that] was classic Clinton."

"Americans have grown accustomed to Bill Clinton taking great liberties with the truth," Mr. Barbour said. "But the whopper he told in Houston last night qualifies him for an award in fiction."

In a testy exchange with reporters at yesterday's White House briefing, presidential press secretary Mike McCurry suggested that what Mr. Clinton meant is that once the Republicans had decided to vote against the administration's budget, the budget became more liberal than Mr. Clinton might have liked because all the input that mattered was from Democrats.

This flap comes at a time the White House and the congressional Republicans are once again locked in a dispute over the budget -- and at a time that the administration's credibility on budget matters is all-important.

In discussions over the looming debt ceiling controversy, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin has recently estimated that the government will run out of money at the end of October, instead of mid-November, which was previously thought to be the deadline.

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