WASHINGTON -- White House and congressional negotiators opened talks last night on balancing the budget amid signs that President Clinton may be less committed than the Republicans to striking a bargain.
At a Capitol Hill meeting yesterday, Mr. Clinton promised Senate Democrats that he would resist Republican efforts to make savings in the social, environmental and education programs he has described as essential to the nation's well-being.
"We'd like to get a deal and are negotiating in good faith, but more important is the president's priorities and principles," George Stephanopoulos, a senior Clinton adviser, said in an interview. "We would like to balance the budget, but not at any price."
But for the Republicans, who consider the fate of their seven-year balanced budget plan critical to the success of their reign as the controlling party in Congress, a no-deal deal is not an option.
"We are so far out on a limb, we have no choice" but to make sure some version of the budget plan becomes law, said Rep. John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
Talks got off to a slow, shaky start last night, with the two sides barely able to overcome a dispute over how many negotiators should be invited.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry suggested in a television interview that the philosophical differences between the president and the GOP Congress are so great that the two sides may never be able to reach an accord.
"I suspect that those kinds of issues will have to be settled in November of 1996," Mr. McCurry said, referring to next year's national election.
"But in the meantime, we can avert the crisis, avert the shutdown, get on with orderly business" by enacting still another stopgap spending bill that will allow the government to keep operating until the larger political questions are settled, he added.
The White House comments may simply have been pre-negotiation positioning. But GOP leaders reacted angrily.
"Anyone who says you cannot resolve these issues until next November is clearly bent on not resolving them," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican. "I hope that's not the president."
Mr. Domenici, who was chosen last night to chair the budget talks, said: "I'm operating on the premise that this is a serious effort."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that Mr. Clinton doesn't have the option of postponing the larger budget debate. He said the Republican-led Congress won't pass another stopgap spending bill if the White House isn't involved in serious budget negotiations when the current measure expires Dec. 15.
"The price of not getting a deal is higher than the price of getting a deal," Mr. Gingrich warned.
Both sides say they are eager to avoid a repeat of the partial government shutdown before Thanksgiving that furloughed nearly 800,000 federal workers for six days, causing anger and inconvenience throughout the nation.
But it is considered unlikely that Mr. Clinton and the Republicans will be able to bridge their differences by Dec. 15, even under the best of circumstances. The issue now is even more basic: Can the two sides agree to keep at it until they can come to terms?
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said he thought the prospects for reaching some agreement by Dec. 15 are "at least 50-50." He added: "I'm hopeful."
Mr. Clinton told the Senate Democrats that he believes he has to take a stab at reaching an accord.
"He said he owes the American people his best efforts to do everything he can to bridge the gaps," Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, reported.
But the White House is stressing that those gaps are huge because the Republicans want to reverse six decades of Democratic social policy intended to protect the most vulnerable Americans.