After the budget battle: Gingrich kept his promises, and now must regret them


WASHINGTON -- Now that The Great Government Shutdown Folly has come to at least a temporary end and serious negotiations on a balanced budget are beginning, it may be instructive to recall a couple of "promises" made early last year by House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

First, on assuming the speakership, he specified that he would "cooperate" with his political opponents but not "compromise." Second, on a Sunday television show, he indicated that to get his way he would if necessary throw a monkey wrench into the machinery financing the government, and then President Clinton will decide how big a crisis he wants."

Mr. Gingrich was true to his word, so there should be little doubt about who was responsible for the government shutdown. From the start, the speaker proceeded with ruthless determination to roll over the man elected to the Oval Office. For a time he was succeeding, until Mr. Clinton began to assert, through his veto power, the clout that the Constitution gives him.

After the first partial shutdown, the deal struck to reopen the government was proclaimed by many a Clinton cave-in, because he accepted the basic idea of a budget balanced in seven years using the Congressional Budget Office numbers championed by the Republican leadership. But the president specified at that time that he would accept such a budget only if he agreed that Medicare, Medicaid and his education and environmental concerns were protected. The Republicans in charging subsequently that Mr. Clinton had broken his promise ignored this caveat.

Also, kissed off in all the blame-placing was the fact that it was Ronald Reagan's screwball scheme that he could cut taxes, increase military spending and still balance the budget that turned the federal deficit problem from a headache into a nightmare.

For all of Mr. Gingrich's rejection of compromise and his stated strategy of pushing the president to the wall at the end of 1995, it was the speaker and the Republicans who finally blinked. Their tactic of using federal workers as hostages, and thus denying government services to millions dependent on federal assistance one sort or another, badly backfired.

Blame the GOP

Polls demonstrated that voters increasingly blamed the Republican-controlled Congress for the government shutdown. In an act of particular political insanity, the Republicans cavalierly brushed aside Democratic proposals that members of Congress forgo their own paychecks as long as federal workers were having theirs withheld. House Republican Whip Tom DeLay proclaimed that as a congressman he was a "Constitutional officer" and presumably didn't work for the government.

Zealots like Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas even suggested that the shutdown indicated how well the country could get along without the hated federal bureaucracy. And when Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole finally declared that "enough is enough" and pushed a bill through the Senate that would have sent federal workers back to their jobs, he was derided by Mr. Gramm and others as a traitor to the Republican "revolution."

But Senator Dole, while sharing the general GOP objective of a balanced budget, did not let zeal overwhelm his political senses. His move to get the focus off the politically damaging shutdown and back to the issue of a balanced budget, at first rebuked by the House Republicans, was instrumental in doing just that.

Now comes the hard negotiating on a budget that can meet the seven-year goal while satisfying President Clinton's concerns. There is finally a Clinton plan on the table, but getting it has come at a high political cost to the Republicans, painted by the president as "extremists" who have little regard for average Americans.

Mr. Clinton has deftly demonstrated a willingness to work with the Republicans while making them the villains in the piece.

If he holds the line on the programs he wants protected, he will be able to claim a share of the credit for a balanced budget, and minimize the Republican political gain in its achievement.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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