WASHINGTON -- As the House recessed last night for three weeks, the once-unified Republicans who control Congress appeared in disarray, with scarcely a glimmer of a plan to end the budget impasse with President Clinton.
With Congress nearly six months late in enacting a budget for this year, Republicans are trying to calculate how much their deficit-cutting plans can be salvaged now that hopes for a balanced-budget deal with Mr. Clinton have collapsed.
"The House will insist on at least a down payment on the balanced budget and, depending on how talks work out, maybe even a full payment," House Speaker Newt Gingrich told reporters last night as he began a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
But there is plenty of disagreement in the ranks.
Many Republicans still are pushing for a seven-year balanced-budget deal, possibly one negotiated with congressional Democrats instead of the White House. Some Republican moderates have broken with leaders to suggest that the party drop its insistence on tax cuts.
Moderate senators from both parties are seeking a compromise on a seven-year budget. The Senate was unable to recess last night because of failure to reach agreement on a farm bill.
Most House Republican leaders, for their part, are pushing a modest solution: a small package of tax and spending cuts to attach to legislation to extend the government's borrowing authority. Unless the government's debt limit is extended by March 1, the nation could soon default on Treasury securities for the first time in history and perhaps forever shake investors' confidence in U.S. bonds.
But Mr. Gingrich further complicated the picture yesterday. He said he was now considering "a four-year package with all the major tax cuts."
"We are considering a number of options," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, a member of the House leadership. Republican leaders will let these options "percolate" in hopes that a consensus will emerge when Congress returns Feb. 26.
Democrats described the Republican situation less charitably.
"They're in a circle, chasing their tails," Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana said of the Republican leaders. "They're being criticized by their own people, and they don't know where to go next."
What's more, President Clinton and Democratic leaders in Congress have denounced the Republicans for refusing to raise the debt ceiling before the recess. The Democrats believe they won the public relations battle on the budget by branding the Republicans as extremists who want to cut deeply into spending and are willing to shut down the government to get their way. Now the Democrats want to press the same point on the debt limit.
Treasury Department officials say that unless Congress acts by March 1, Social Security checks, veterans benefits, civil service pensions and Medicare payments could all be threatened.
Congress overwhelmingly passed last night a bill to assure that Social Security checks would not be affected. But Democrats contend that the measure falls far short of dealing with the broader implications of a default.
"I have never seen a more irresponsible, reckless attitude by the majority in Congress about an issue of such importance to the average American," said House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who failed yesterday to get the House to approve an increase in the debt cap with "no threats or conditions."
Mr. Gingrich has promised that Congress will meet the March 1 deadline by sending Mr. Clinton a debt-ceiling bill he can sign. Further, the Republicans, as well as some independent analysts, argue that the Social Security fund is self-financing and shouldn't be affected by a default.
Even so, the Republicans' decision to push through the measure yesterday to specifically protect Social Security checks signaled their belief that they need political cover from Democrats'
The potential "for the administration to deliberately manipulate the system is so enormous, that we did not want to take any risk that they would hurt senior citizens," Mr. Gingrich said.
In his State of the Union address, Mr. Clinton urged Republicans to pass an extension of the debt limit on behalf of "those who need their Social Security payments at the beginning of March."
In an effort to find a way out of their budget morass, House and Senate budget committee chairmen met yesterday with centrist Republicans and Democrats to try to produce a bipartisan proposal.
"I think this meeting indicates that a real budget deal in this Congress is still doable," said Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, who has been among the leaders of the centrist Democrats.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico, said after the meeting: "I am relatively optimistic. Our goal seems to be unanimous."
"As each piece of the puzzle gets worked out, we can take it off the table," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who has been part of these informal talks. "But if they finally get a budget deal, it's more likely to be for 1997 than 1996."
At the White House, there are mixed views on whether it is in Mr. Clinton's interest to make a budget bargain with the Republicans.
"It has to be a good deal," said Barry Toiv, a White House aide. A good deal is defined by the White House as one that allows Mr. Clinton to campaign in the fall on a dual platform: that he put the nation on a path to a balanced budget, while still "protecting" Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment from overzealous Republican budget-cutters.
With the budget talks in limbo, the Democratic National Committee is already running ads saying that Mr. Clinton offered a budget that achieves all his goals and that Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dole, Mr. Clinton's leading Republican presidential rival, "just walked away."
The climate of the budget negotiations may also change during the next three weeks, as the Republican presidential candidates move through the critical contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
A week or so ago, White House strategists envisioned Mr. Dole wrapping up the Republican nomination quickly and then returning full time to his duties as Senate majority leader. In that context, White House officials believed, he would be more amenable to a budget compromise, and more capable of engineering it.
But after Mr. Dole's poorly received response to Mr. Clinton's State of the Union address and the mercurial rise in the polls of Mr. Dole's rival Steve Forbes, all bets are off.