Federal shutdown looms again Budget talks crumble; weekend funding bill needed to stay open; 'Cooking the books'; Closing II would start Monday, affect fewer government workers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Talks between the White House and Republican leaders in Congress on balancing the budget dissolved into angry recriminations yesterday, leaving the federal government heading for another partial shutdown nine days before Christmas.

Last night's midnight deadline brought no willingness by the two sides to resolve their differences over how to balance the budget in seven years. So unless an emergency short-term spending bill is agreed to over the weekend, 280,000 federal workers will be furloughed beginning Monday morning. They are employed by agencies whose spending authority has yet to be approved by Congress.

That figure is far less than the 800,000 federal workers who were furloughed during last month's shutdown. But the failure to reach agreement will still have a demonstrable impact, especially in the Baltimore-Washington area. Federal museums and national parks, normally open on weekends, will be closed today. The District of Columbia, which has not received its annual federal appropriation, will be forced to scale back city services as well.

President Clinton placed all the blame on Republicans last night and vowed not to give in to their "threat" to close the government unless they get what they want.

"As all of you know, today the Republicans in Congress broke off our negotiations on how best to balance the budget in seven years," he said. "They said they would not even continue to talk unless we agreed right now to make deep and unconscionable cuts in Medicare and Medicaid."

Republican leaders accused Mr. Clinton of reneging on his promise to balance the budget and of "cooking the books" to mask his refusal to curtail spending. They said that a short-term spending measure to reopen the government could be on Mr. Clinton's desk as early as today if he showed he was serious about wiping out the deficit.

"The president has to come up with a real plan," said Rep. John R. Kasich, chairman of the House Budget Committee. "The closing of the government is on the president's back."

Neither side disputed the somber assessment of the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Pete V. Domenici. "It is with deep, deep regret," he said, "that I have to tell the American people that we're right back where we started."

Yesterday began with some hope of a compromise as Democratic and Republican negotiators met to exchange their latest budget proposals on Capitol Hill. Instead, the meeting produced only ill will as each side accused the other of refusing to compromise.

"I'm getting a little tired of negotiating with myself, frankly," said an exasperated Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff.

Mr. Kasich countered that rather than negotiate with Republicans, the president was acceding to the demands of liberal Democrats. "In order to get this deal done, they're going to have to throw the far left from the train," Mr. Kasich said.

Separate approaches

The basis of the disagreement is that Republicans favor a spending plan that balances the budget in seven years while granting tax cuts totaling $245 billion over that period.

The Clinton administration and congressional Democrats oppose the Republican plan. They say that the tax cuts are too broad and that proposed curbs on Medicaid and Medicare place too heavy a burden on the poor and elderly.

Complicating the debate is the fact that the Republicans rely on economic projections from the Congressional Budget Office, while the president insists on using rosier assessments from his own Office of Management and Budget. In doing so, Mr. Clinton doesn't have to cut nearly as much government spending to produce a plan that promises a balanced budget in 2002.

Although the two sides are much closer than they were a month ago, Mr. Clinton's refusal to accept CBO calculations hit a nerve with Republicans.

The president had vowed in his 1993 State of the Union speech to resist the temptation to use his own economists instead of CBO's. And to end the first budget impasse, on Nov. 20, the president agreed to use CBO numbers.

Yesterday, however, the White House negotiators backtracked on this pledge. Their new proposal claimed $121 billion in savings. But most of that came from White House assertions that CBO estimates are mistaken. The new Clinton budget contained only modest new spending cuts.

Republicans, who offered to restore some $88 billion in proposed savings in Medicare and Medicaid, seemed irate.

"The president signed an agreement with Congress that committed his administration to 'achieve a balanced budget no later than fiscal year 2002 as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office,' " said Sen. Connie Mack of Florida. "He gave his word -- he broke his word."

Clinton is upbeat

But Mr. Clinton seems emboldened by his rising approval rating, by the public's perception in opinion polls that Republicans, more than Democrats, are to blame for the budget impasse and by the woes of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who faces ethics charges and who is portrayed as being unsympathetic toward the poor.

Last night, appearing before reporters in the White House briefing room, Mr. Clinton appeared improbably jaunty as he entered, laughing and needling CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer.

Mr. Clinton did not answer questions to further defend his position. Instead he hammered the Republicans on themes that his political advisers say they plan to stress throughout the campaign year of 1996.

"The cuts they propose would deprive millions of people of health care -- poor children, pregnant women, the disabled, seniors in nursing homes," Mr. Clinton said. "They would let Medicare wither on the vine into a second-class system. And these things simply are not necessary to balance the budget."

Responding to the president's attack moments later on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole sounded subdued.

"We've made an effort time after time to meet the president halfway," Mr. Dole said. "Mr. President, don't say we're going to devastate this and devastate that."

Lights stay on

The government may be shutting down, but the National Christmas Tree will be saved. Without a temporary spending bill, the U.S. Park Service loses its funding and the tree would go dark.

White House officials announced that President Clinton would pay the cost. Spokesman Mike McCurry said the president issued an order to keep the lights on and to send him the bill for the electricity.

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