Crack seen in budget impasse Gingrich, Dole seek meeting with Clinton for possible truce; Panetta sent in to scout; Moves on spending, borrowing bills could prevent shutdown


WASHINGTON -- A top White House official and Republican congressional leaders will try to reach a truce today in the increasingly rancorous budget deliberations and avert a partial shutdown of the federal government as early as Tuesday.

Signs of possible movement surfaced late yesterday when Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich invited President Clinton to meet with them at the Capitol this afternoon to search for a way out of the impasse.

The White House responded by saying that Mr. Clinton's chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, would confer with the GOP leaders to determine "if there is sufficient movement to warrant further conversations."

If there is, Mr. Dole and Mr. Gingrich would be invited to the White House.

Earlier yesterday, prospects for a shutdown heightened as GOP leaders delayed sending a stopgap spending bill to the president until a few hours before the midnight Monday deadline when the government runs out of money.

That leaves little time for Congress to pass a second spending measure to keep the government operating if Mr. Clinton, as expected, vetoes the first bill because of long-standing objections to some of its provisions.

"That's his problem," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "He hasn't given us any indication that he wants to negotiate."

Earlier yesterday, as House members were debating the spending bill, which passed 224-172, and another emergency measure that will temporarily extend the government's borrowing authority, the president complained that the Republican tactics were "deeply irresponsible."

Mr. Clinton is expected to find the borrowing bill, which raises the $4.9 trillion debt ceiling by $67 billion, even more objectionable than the spending measure.

Republicans added several major unrelated amendments to the borrowing bill before the House approved it on a 219-185 vote, including an overhaul of federal regulations and new limits on death row appeals.

Particularly offensive to the White House, however, are new restrictions on the president's ability to shift federal money between various accounts to avoid defaulting on debts.

The House version of the spending bill differs slightly from the measure approved by the Senate Thursday night, which accounts in part for the delay in getting the legislation to Mr. Clinton. Both chambers must pass the identical bill before it goes to the White House.

Mr. Clinton urged Congress to stay in Washington this weekend to complete its work, even though the Senate departed the night before for the Veterans Day weekend.

Neither the House nor the Senate is scheduled to be in session until Monday. House members hooted derisively yesterday when they learned that the president went off to play golf shortly after he called on them to work all weekend.

"We have a president who doesn't mind playing, doesn't mind talking, but doesn't seem to like working," said Mr. Gingrich as he and Mr. Dole strolled into a news conference carrying golf clubs. "It seems to us that the White House has been shut down for weeks."

The Republican-led Congress and the Democratic president are acting out a political melodrama that at times seems silly but is rooted in deep differences over spending and other national priorities.

The stopgap spending bill -- known as a "continuing resolution" -- and the temporary increase in government borrowing authority are short-term measures needed only until the White House and Congress agree on a budget.

Mr. Clinton said yesterday that the budget debate is about "two very different futures for America, about whether we will continue to go forward under our motto 'E Pluribus Unum,' out of many, one or whether we will become a more divided, winner-take-all society."

But Republican leaders countered that the central question was whether to maintain the status quo of federal borrowing and deficits or to sacrifice now in order to protect the financial future of America's children.

"It's almost five to 12 and we're in the movie 'High Noon' and we're sitting in the saloon," said John R. Kasich of Ohio, the House Budget Committee chairman. "We're going to drink a shot of whiskey, walk out into the dusty street and we are going to have a fight about the American dream."

One of the key issues in dispute in the stopgap spending bill is a provision that would raise premiums on Medicare to $53.50 a month next year from the current $46.10.

The premium increase is part of the Republican plan to slow the growth of federal spending in order to balance the budget. The GOP wants to pass the premium increase now so that it can take effect in January. If Congress takes no action on premiums, they drop in January to $42.50 a month.

Mr. Clinton and congressional Democrats have seized on the premium issue as emblematic of the Republican approach to the budget.

"This is the beginning of the Republican plan to ask seniors to pay more for their health care coverage," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat. He charged that the Republicans want to use the $53 billion raised by the premium increase to help finance their $245 billion package of tax cuts.

The premium increase alone would be enough for Mr. Clinton to veto the stopgap spending bill, said Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle.

But the White House also objects to spending levels Republicans included in their emergency bill. Instead of the usual practice in stopgap measures of allowing federal agencies to continuing operating at their current level, GOP leaders have dropped spending to 60 percent for agencies and programs they want to eliminate, such as the Department of Commerce.

"The Republican majority doesn't want to shut down the federal government; however, we are absolutely committed to putting our financial house in order," said Rep. Joseph Knollenberg, a Michigan Republican. "Balancing the budget is no small task."

The House approved the stopgap spending bill and sent it back to the Senate after stripping off a controversial provision intended to prevent groups that receive federal grant money from lobbying the federal government.

GOP leaders promised they would allow that provision, co-sponsored by Maryland Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, to be added to another bill over the next few weeks, Mr. Ehrlich said.

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