Clinton, GOP deadlocked Talks fail to avert partial shutdown of federal government; 800,000 workers sent home; Prospects for progress appear dim in battle over balancing budget; THE GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN


WASHINGTON -- Talks between President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders broke off last night with no apparent progress and no sign of an end to the deadlock that sent 800,000 federal workers home from their jobs and shut down nonessential government services.

"At this time, I have to tell you we are at an impasse," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said after a second round of discussions with GOP leaders ended without agreement.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich said last evening that Congress would begin work "in the next day or two" on a measure to reopen selected federal offices, including Social Security, veterans offices, passport agencies and possibly national parks. But that idea drew a negative response from a top White House official, who said that Mr. Clinton almost certainly would reject it.

As the rhetoric escalated in a day of dueling public statements, the Republicans contended that the president has no plan to balance the budget -- and that he was trying to scuttle theirs. They were holding fast to their demand that Mr. Clinton accept their timetable, one that would reduce projected federal spending by $1 trillion in the next seven years.

If the president would "settle on a seven-year plan and get on board, we'll be able to work this out," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Mr. Clinton, asserting that the Republican plan contains "unwise cuts," maintained that he, too, wants to eliminate the federal deficit. But he continued to insist that the Republicans meet him on his terms by sending him a stopgap spending bill that maintains current levels of funding for Medicare, education and environmental protection.

"I say yes to a balanced budget, no to the cuts," the president declared.

Neither side seemed willing to predict when the deadlock might end. There was no sign that the entire federal workforce would be quickly back on the job -- as has happened in previous shutdowns -- while the two sides thrashed out larger budget issues.

"We're fully engaged now; there's no point in putting it off," said Rep. Randy Tate of Washington, one of 73 freshmen Republicans who have been the central force behind the GOP drive to shrink the government.

"Let's balance the budget now," Mr. Tate said. "That's what most of us were elected to do."

About 800,000 of the 2.1 million civilian federal workers around the country were affected by the shutdown, including most of Maryland's 220,000 federal employees. Essential services, including the nation's defense, air traffic control system and federal prisons, were operating normally.

Mr. Clinton had to send 340 of the 430-member White House staff home, including 63 of the 70 domestic workers at the residence who serve the food, clean the house and keep the grounds. Republican senators lunched yesterday on takeout pizza because the Senate restaurants were closed.

The president is insisting that he will only sign a stopgap spending measure that has no strings attached. Mr. Panetta yesterday offered a compromise proposal: Mr. Clinton would support the goal of a balanced budget by "a date certain," between seven and 10 years, with economic assumptions that are mutually acceptable to the White House and Congress.

The idea was rejected.

"Seven years is absolutely non-negotiable for us," said Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi. "Once we can agree on that, we can talk about everything else."

In one of the few apparent concessions, Republican negotiators dropped their insistence that Medicare premiums be raised as part of the stopgap funding measure, as Mr. Clinton had demanded. But one top White House official said late last night that the other requirements in the Republican plan made the GOP concession an empty one.

What began as a fight over a stopgap spending bill has blossomed into a full-blown battle over the central question of the year in Washington: the success or failure of the conservative Republican plan to reduce the size and scope of the federal government.

House and Senate Republicans yesterday were ironing out the final wrinkles of the balanced budget plan they expect to send to Mr. Clinton by the end of this week, after it gains approval in the House and the Senate.

The GOP budget calls for scaling back the growth of federal spending by nearly $1 trillion over seven years, mostly by slowing increases in automatic benefits programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, farm subsidies and tax relief for the working poor.

In addition, the Republican budget would grant $245 billion in tax cuts to families and businesses. Some of those breaks -- including a cut in the tax rate on capital gains and a $500 per child tax credit -- would apply retroactively to this year, so taxpayers would see the benefits before the national election next fall.

Mr. Clinton has proposed similar budget initiatives, including slowing the growth of Medicare and Medicaid and offering a tax cut for middle class families, but yesterday he called the GOP budget "bad for America" and vowed to oppose it.

"Unfortunately, Republican leaders in Washington have put ideology ahead of common sense and shared values in their pursuit of a budget plan," Mr. Clinton said in a midday address at the White House.

His remarks infuriated Republican leaders, who delivered an angry response to reporters at the Capitol.

"Mr. President, you make things very difficult with the speech you made today," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, chairman of the Budget Committee. "Half-truths, misstatements, statements that you're making in it that are absolutely your version but don't happen to be the version of other experts, including the Congressional Budget Office."

White House officials acknowledge that Mr. Clinton is battling for public opinion, and they believe he's winning.

"They [the public] hate the Republican budget, and they'll give the president credit for standing up to it," said George Stephanopoulos, a senior Clinton aide. "He's staked out his position, and he's sticking to it."

Meanwhile, the government's shutdown orders, requiring "essential" workers to be on the job even though they can't be paid, ran into an immediate constitutional challenge in federal court by a major labor union, the American Federation of Government Employees.

The union asked a federal judge to rule that the government may not require workers to perform their jobs for ordinary government operations. Only if a worker is needed to deal with a genuine emergency, involving threats to life or property, can that person be asked to work without pay, the union's lawsuit contended.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad