WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and congressional Republicans adjourned their marathon budget talks for a week yesterday without an agreement, but without a breakdown either.
In separate news conferences that were uncharacteristically civil, each side said that though it needed more concessions from the other side, they were far from giving up. In fact, they tentatively agreed to resume their negotiations next Wednesday morning.
"A final agreement is clearly within reach," Mr. Clinton told reporters.
First, however, the sides clearly needed a breather. After three weeks of closed-door sessions totaling some 50 hours, the participants showed signs of cabin fever and expressed a need to clear their heads, get out of Washington for a while and do some politicking in advance of the 1996 elections.
"This is an opportunity to reassess the situation," House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said of the weeklong break.
"Maybe it won't happen, but we owe it our best shot," added Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. "I think it's the president's move. We'll see what he has to say let things evolve a little bit."
Republican proposals to trim the increases in Medicare and Medicaid are still "unwise" or "unnecessary," the president said, but before now Mr. Clinton's most common word to describe zTC them was "extreme."
Republican leaders, also disappointed with Mr. Clinton's latest counter-offer, refrained from criticizing the president.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Mr. Armey dangled the possibility of rounding up enough conservative Democratic votes to move their latest budget through the Congress with veto-proof margins. But they spoke of that tactic half-heartedly -- knowing, one key Democrat said, that overriding a Clinton veto would be even more difficult than negotiating with him.
Mr. Dole, standing beside the two House leaders, visibly squirmed when asked about the override strategy.
"We'd like to see all these talks succeed," he said. "The American people would like a balanced budget, and they're looking to us for leadership and statesmanship rather than politics."
With a little over two weeks before a Jan. 26 deadline -- when another government shutdown would occur in the absence of legislative action -- the budget impasse appears to have come down to how big a tax cut Republicans can persuade the president to accept.
The latest Republican offer contains $177 billion in tax cuts over the next seven years, most of it in the form of a $500-per-child tax write-off. In his remarks yesterday, Mr. Clinton spoke supportively, almost wistfully, about such a cut, but reiterated that he is unwilling to cut too deeply into Medicare and Medicaid to get it.
"The question is, 'How do you pay for it?' " White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta told reporters.
At the end of yesterday's five-hour session, Mr. Clinton unilaterally advanced an idea -- which he wouldn't describe -- to break the logjam. Congressional sources said that Mr. Clinton had proposed taking another $30 billion out of various entitlements, presumably money that Republicans could apply to tax cuts.
This offer, considered way too small by Republican leaders, prompted them to pull the plug for the week. But though GOP leaders clearly intended to nudge Mr. Clinton to come further toward them, there were also signs that Republicans just want some time off -- to travel, to visit their districts, or in the case of Mr. Dole, to campaign for the presidency. Mr. Dole noted that the talks could continue at the current pace for another three days and not make any more progress.
Mr. Clinton is scheduled to raise money for his party and then head to Bosnia to visit U.S. troops. Then the two sides are to return to Washington next week, presumably under clearer skies, to resume budget talks.
"What you have here is a group of people trying to find an honest compromise," said House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, in an unusually conciliatory comment. "I don't know if we can do it, I really don't. But we're trying."