WASHINGTON -- The elusive balanced budget pact between President Clinton and GOP congressional leaders slipped farther out of reach yesterday when the Republicans canceled a negotiating session, saying there was nothing new to talk about.
Following a 40-minute telephone conversation with Mr. Clinton, the GOP leaders announced they had called off the first scheduled talks in a week because the president had not made any substantial move in their direction.
Instead of offering a new budget proposal, Mr. Clinton suggested last week that the months-long effort to reach a deal might be advanced if he and the lawmakers simply set spending levels for various programs.
He said they should put off nettlesome policy disputes over how the money should be spent until after this year's elections.
Republicans said it was necessary to make policy decisions on issues such as the proposed overhaul of Medicare to determine how money can be saved.
"He gave us a lesson in arithmetic," Mr. Dole complained. "This is about policy."
Cancellation of yesterday's session was another discouraging development in the Republicans' drive to win agreement from Mr. Clinton on legislation that would balance the budget by 2002.
The White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, said that Mr. Clinton was "disappointed" at the GOP decision not to come to the White House and that the two sides had "a good conversation" by phone.
But while he maintained that the negotiating process is "not dead," the spokesman conceded that its vital signs were "faint."
Speaker Newt Gingrich, once the most optimistic participant in the budget talks, now calls their prospects of success "somewhere between dismal and very bad."
He already seems to be working his way through the mourning process.
"Life goes on with or without a budget negotiation," Mr. Gingrich said, noting that Republicans may have to wait until next year, when he hopes they will have a president of their own party.
Many Republicans say they don't believe Mr. Clinton is willing, and may not even be politically able, to reach the kind of agreement they are seeking.
The disputes between the two sides involve deep differences on the role of government, such as whether the poor and elderly in nursing homes should continue to be guaranteed health care through the Medicaid program.
Liberal Democrats who form the base of Mr. Clinton's party believe strongly that the guarantee should continue. Conservative Republicans believe that states should make such decisions about how to spend Medicaid funds.
At this point, time is also the enemy of a budget deal. Nearly half the first year of the seven-year spending plan has passed. Mr. Clinton is due shortly to present his budget for fiscal 1997.
Meanwhile, the three largest spending bills for this year still haven't been enacted, and a short-term spending measure that put the federal workers back on the job after a three-week shutdown is due to run out next week.
House GOP leaders, trying to keep their disgruntled troops fired up for the budget fight, say they will turn their efforts now to selectively starving the federal programs they don't like. These include some top Clinton priorities for education, environmental protection and the volunteer service program, Americorps.
But such a tactic is likely to run into resistance in the Senate -- from Republicans as well as Democrats -- and would almost certainly face presidential vetoes.
"If we wind up with another veto," asked House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, "where does that get us?"
He argued that the Republicans, who control Congress, have a responsibility to find a budget agreement with the president, "as hard as that is to do."