WASHINGTON -- With much of the federal government still shut down by a political stalemate, President Clinton yesterday ordered Social Security and Veterans Administration offices to reopen to avoid a backlog in benefit applications that could otherwise last for months.
The president's action means that 1,700 Veterans Affairs workers and 54,000 Social Security employees will return to work Monday. The recalled Social Security employees include 6,400 in the Baltimore area.
An additional 7,000 Baltimore-area Social Security employees will remain on furlough. Only employees who deal directly with the public, in receiving and processing applications, will return to work.
Mr. Clinton announced the emergency step as he declared his intention to veto a new stop-gap spending bill the Republican-led Congress sent to him last night. The president said that the new measure, similar to one he vetoed Monday, would commit him to the Republican plan for balancing the budget over seven years by curbing the growth of government spending more sharply than the president says is necessary.
"Holding the government, the federal employees, and the millions of Americans who depend upon them, hostage to the congressional Republican budget is not the way to do this work," Mr. Clinton said. "I will still veto any bill that requires crippling cuts in Medicare, weakens the environment, reduces educational opportunity, or raises taxes on working families."
For their part, Republican congressional leaders struck a conciliatory note on the budget impasse, which has led to the furloughing of nearly 800,000 of the 2.1 million federal workers. Those workers who are deemed essential for public health and safety, many of them involved in defense, air traffic control and federal prisons, remain on the job.
The leaders said they would be willing to seek approval of separate legislation to allow employees of the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, Veterans Affairs and the Health Care Financing Administration, which runs the Medicare program, to return to work with pay.
The remaining 1 million or so federal workers who have remained on the job since the shutdown took effect at midnight Monday are working on the promise that they will be paid eventually.
"Senator Dole and I are prepared to meet with the president this afternoon or this evening or at any point where we can work out getting the federal employees back to work," Mr. Gingrich said.
But the Republicans stuck to their fundamental demand that to fully resolve the current crisis and reopen the entire government, Mr. Clinton must accept their goal of balancing the budget in seven years with "honest numbers."
Those numbers -- estimates of economic growth, inflation and other factors on which budgets are based -- are the key element in dispute. The administration predicts a rosier outlook than does the Congressional Budget Office.
If the administration projections are correct, the government could spend about $850 billion more than the Republicans propose over seven years and still balance the budget. Republicans want to play it safe, using the more pessimistic numbers and scaling back spending more sharply.
Republican efforts to recover momentum in the political debate were set back this week by the House speaker's complaints to reporters about feeling slighted by the president when he had to depart from the rear exit of Air Force One when the U.S. delegation returned from the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Mr. Gingrich said his wounded feelings contributed to the decision to send Mr. Clinton a spending bill that included conditions that Republicans knew Mr. Clinton would find objectionable.
The story made the front page of newspapers nationwide, most notably the Daily News of New York, which called Mr. Gingrich a "crybaby" and depicted him in diapers. House Democrats gleefully displayed the newspaper on the House floor until the Republicans voted to make them stop.
Mr. Clinton also weighed in yesterday with a few carefully chosen words. "If it would get the government open, I'd be glad to tell him I'm sorry," he said of the House speaker.
At the same time, the Republican leaders said yesterday that they were encouraged because 48 House Democrats, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland and Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, voted for the stop-gap spending bill with the seven-year requirement.
L Last night, seven Democratic senators voted for the measure.
Most of those House Democrats do not support the Republican budget plan, which would shrink spending by $1 trillion over seven years by slowing the growth of benefit programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, student loans and tax breaks for the working poor.
Instead, many Democrats back a plan that would also balance the budget over seven years using the same economic projections as the Republicans do.
But the alternative plan, offered by a group of conservative Democrats, allows for more generous government spending because it drops the GOP proposal for $245 billion in tax cuts.
"I think it's a reasonable compromise," Mr. Wynn said. But he and Mr. Hoyer both said their first concern was getting employees in their districts back to work.
Referring to Mr. Clinton's assertion that he could not sign the stopgap spending bill because it "bound him to the Republican budget," Mr. Gingrich argued: "That is, of course, not true."
Mr. Clinton seemed in no mood to negotiate. Mindful of polls showing that most Americans blame Congress for the impasse and urged by his aides to demonstrate his leadership by taking a strong stand and sticking with it, the president is waiting for the Republicans to come to him.
The Republicans are torn. They are at a pivotal moment that could determine the outcome of their crusade to shrink the government, balance the budget and reorder 60 years of Democratic spending priorities. But they disagree on how hard to push Mr. Clinton.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, said Mr. Gingrich had been preparing to drop the demand that Mr. Clinton commit to Congress' economic projections.
But then, Republican aides found a tape of the president declaring during his State of the Union address in 1993 that he would abide by those figures. That tape is now being used as part of a GOP television ad campaign.
Furloughed federal workers who live in Maryland and need information on how to apply for unemployment benefits can call the Maryland Unemployment Insurance Office at (410) 767-2424. Caveat: If you are paid retroactively, you will be required to repay unemployment benefits.
Furloughed Social Security Administration employees in the Baltimore area who need the latest information on their status can call the SSA hot line at (410) 965-1027.