WASHINGTON -- Despite mounting pressure from GOP senators and President Clinton, the Republican-led House yesterday defiantly rejected the latest attempt to jump-start the federal government and return idled workers to their jobs.
The House refused on a 206-167 vote to even consider a Senate-passed measure that would have reopened shuttered federal agencies through Jan. 12.
All but two Republicans -- including Montgomery County's Constance A. Morella, who represents thousands of government workers -- joined in the rejection.
"We're not interested in doing what the Senate did," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican. "I see it as a cave."
Beneath the din of angry exchanges, though, there were signals yesterday that Republicans are looking for a way out of the budget impasse, now in its 20th day.
Reacting to a fusillade of criticism from Mr. Clinton, several Republican House members said the government could be reopened almost immediately if he would submit a plan to balance the budget in seven years -- even if it reflected the president's priorities.
Tony Blankley, a spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, made similar remarks to reporters camped out at the White House last night while Mr. Gingrich and other congressional leaders negotiated over the budget with Mr. Clinton in the Oval Office.
Throughout the day, the undertone within Republican ranks was that seemingly unyielding GOP House members were actually willing, even eager, to give ground to the president on his insistence that Medicare and Medicaid by largely spared in the GOP's budget balancing quest.
Several Republicans also made a point of saying that the size and scope of the proposed GOP tax cuts were on the table for discussion, too.
Last night, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and two top aides who specialize in tax policy joined the White House bargaining session for 50 minutes as the two sides explored a possible compromise on the proposed tax cuts.
The Republican-controlled Congress has passed a sweeping capital gains tax cut, which Mr. Clinton says he'd like to see scaled back, as well as a $500-per-child tax credit.
The president is offering a version of the family tax cut, but a smaller one with several restrictions.
The Oval Office meeting broke up after about three hours.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry, joking that it was "deja vu all over again," used the same word -- "constructive" -- that he'd used the night before to describe the talks. They are to resume at 3 p.m. today.
Earlier yesterday, the House -- in addition to blocking action on the bill that would have reopened the government -- allowed a limited stop-gap spending bill for veterans benefits and welfare payments to expire, agreeing only to let the Washington, D.C., government spend its own money.
But the national strain of the partial shutdown was clearly beginning to take its toll, even among the ranks of those most determined to continue using the lockout as a club to force Mr. Clinton into a balanced budget deal.
"I think we've got to do something to reopen the government by this weekend, or Republicans are going to be dead ducks," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, even though he voted with the GOP majority.
"In my judgment, the president has not been bargaining in good faith, but we've got to get the focus back on the balanced budget and off the shutdown," he said.
Mr. Clinton, who has taken every opportunity to highlight the growing rift between House and Senate Republicans, made an impromptu appearance before reporters to condemn the House action moments before he, House Speaker Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole began their fifth day of budget negotiations.
"It is an unnatural disaster born of a cynical political strategy," Mr. Clinton said of nine Cabinet agencies closed and 260,000 federal employees idled.
"It is part of an explicit strategy by Republicans to shut the government down to get their way on budget and tax issues. This has never been done before."
The president ran through a litany of difficulties that he said would result if the closure goes on much longer, saying that environmental and safety rules wouldn't be enforced and payments to Medicare providers wouldn't go out.
The lawmakers returning to Washington after the holiday break were in no mood to let the White House charges go unanswered.
"The president got a few things wrong," fumed Rep. Susan Molinari, of New York, one of several Republicans who appeared at a news conference to respond. "This is his government shutdown."
At stake is the essence of the Republican agenda and the product of nearly a year's work. The GOP proposal to balance the budget over seven years would significantly redefine the role of the federal government while sharply curbing its spending.
Mr. Clinton and many Democrats have strong philosophical objections to the GOP proposals that must be resolved before a compromise spending plan can emerge.
In what may have been the peace overture in disguise, several of the Republicans challenged Mr. Clinton to finally put his own balanced budget plan on the table -- something the administration hasn't yet done -- and said that if he did so, the House would pass a stopgap spending bill to restart the government in a matter of hours.
"We could get a bill like that through in an hour if the president would put a budget proposal on the table," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican. "Though, I would also like to see the framework of a budget agreement first."
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a northern Virginia Republican who represents many federal workers, said President Clinton "is like Br'er Rabbit. We're throwing him in the briar patch, precisely where he wants to be."
"What we're doing just makes the Congress look mean, while the president looks the opposite," Mr. Wolf said. "It hasn't worked."
Mr. Bartlett, whose district also has many federal workers, said they are angry, but not just at the Republicans.
"They say, 'A pox on both your houses,' " said Mr. Bartlett. "They wonder why we can't stop acting like children and just sit down and work this out."
Meanwhile, a federal judge here refused to order the government to send home hundreds of thousands of workers who are required to be on the job, but have no guarantee they will get paid.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, rejecting pleas by two federal employee labor unions, said that a no-work-without-pay order by him would "create a crisis" for the government based on no more than a hope that the president and Congress would react and act to undo "the havoc" brought on.
The unions contend that federal law and the Constitution bar compelled work by federal employees unless Congress actually has voted the money to pay their salaries.
Judge Sullivan said he was sympathetic to the plight of workers not getting full pay, but he was not persuaded that he should step in now to help them out.