WASHINGTON -- Frustrated by the pace of budget talks and unhappy at being blamed for a 3-week-old partial government shutdown, House Speaker Newt Gingrich canceled a White House meeting yesterday and tried -- but did not immediately succeed -- to persuade fellow GOP House members to get the government running again.
The proposal would bring the 280,000 furloughed federal employees back to work, pay the estimated 480,000 who've been working without pay and fund some of the more popular -- and politically sensitive -- federal programs that have been strained since the shutdown began Dec. 16.
Mr. Gingrich originally proposed paying the federal workers until March 15. In the face of rank-and-file resistance, late last night he modified that date to Jan. 26 -- and told reporters he would bring it to a vote today, predicting it would pass.
"We did not want the federal employees held hostage," he said.
In a two-hour, closed-door meeting among the Republican members, the speaker and the House leadership argued that the political cost of hanging tough for the sake of a balanced budget had become too high.
Mr. Gingrich also attempted to focus attention on the plight of those who have been most directly affected by the shutdown -- the government workers going without a paycheck.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, quoted the speaker as telling his colleagues, "I'm an Army brat and grew up in a family that didn't have much money. I know how these folks feel."
But the idea of a tactical retreat proved a hard sell, especially to the House GOP freshmen, who continued to insist they were sent to Washington to balance the budget -- and that their constituents want them to stand fast.
"I don't believe that paying [federal workers] now without getting anything from the president would be acceptable," said Rep. Mark E. Souder, a freshman Republican from Indiana.
"It would be perceived that we caved."
Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, a member of the GOP leadership, admitted to reporters at the conclusion of the last night's meeting that nothing had been decided.
But he played down the notion of a split among House Republicans.
"A lot of options [were] put on the table," he said, adding that the leaders would take "a couple of more days" to decide what to do.
After the GOP assemblage concluded, White House press secretary Mike McCurry issued a statement saying the failure by the House to end the shutdown was "troubling" to the president.
"There is a majority in the Senate, and apparently the House as well, prepared to reopen much of our government and bring federal workers back to work with pay," the statement said.
"But a willful, extreme minority in the House Republican Caucus is apparently holding common sense and the American people hostage."
This is the kind of rhetoric that has repeatedly infuriated Republicans all during the test of wills on the budget -- and has convinced many of them that Mr. Clinton is far more interested in gaining political advantage than a balanced budget agreement.
During last night's session, Republican members "vented" their feelings on the budget process, one participant said.
He added that although they have different views of Mr. Gingrich's plan, all agreed that Mr. Clinton is not pursuing a budget compromise in good faith.
"He doesn't want a balanced budget," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican. "Now we've got to go to Plan B. Plan B is to get government back on its feet."
That was the decision reluctantly arrived at by the Republican leadership as well.
In doing so, they joined Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Bob Dole, who earlier this week voted to end the shutdown.
That overture was rejected by the House.
But yesterday, Mr. Gingrich changed course.
Under the terms he explained last night, the measure, called a "continuing resolution," would fund for the rest of the fiscal year a host of programs that the Clinton administration has highlighted as a way to pressure the Republicans.
These include veterans benefits, unemployment compensation, foster care and adoption services for poor children, the opening of parks and museums, and Meals on Wheels, which provides hot food for poor elderly persons.
Regarding federal employees, however, the Republicans didn't want to pay them the rest of the year, saying they wanted to retain some pressure on Mr. Clinton to continue to negotiate with Republicans on their elusive quest for a balanced budget by the year 2002.
House members have maintained that the shutdown was the one weapon that had induced Mr. Clinton to actually sit down and bargain with them.
Those bargaining sessions were scheduled to resume later today, said Republican and White House sources.
Mr. Gingrich scrubbed the meeting set for yesterday afternoon so he could confer with GOP House members.
A White House aide said Mr. Clinton would sign the Gingrich proposal into law, assuming the House and Senate pass it, even though it would provide for only a partial reopening of the government.
"He'll criticize it, but he'll sign it," the aide said.
House Democrats wasted no time in taunting their Republican colleagues.
"You can't take the heat, so you're reaching into your pockets and waving your white handkerchiefs," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat.
This kind of response only further hardened the views of hard-line Republicans, who view the Democrats as being obsessed with partisan politics instead of the country's fiscal future.
"We have a do-nothing president who is more interested in the polls than balancing the budget," said Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Florida Republican.
"He is trying to gain politically by pointing at us -- while he vetoes everything. If we have to take heat for a couple of months, so be it."
Increasingly, however, there is evidence that both sides are feeling pressure.
In November, during a six-day shutdown that now seems tame by comparison, opinion polls showed the public blaming Congress more than the president for the impasse by a ratio of 2 to 1.
A new CBS poll showed that margin is now only 44 percent to 33 percent in favor of the president.
"We want a deal," one White House official said. "It just has to reflect the president's priorities."
The United States is now in the second quarter of the current fiscal year -- the fiscal year being argued about. By statute, the White House is required to produce the fiscal year 1997 budget just a month from now.
"I guess this is the train wreck I'd hoped for," said conservative economist Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute, who knew the Republicans would have to fight hard to trim government spending.
"I guess I just didn't realize they'd insist on leading with their chins on this stuff."
But some Democrats were expressing similar doubts.