WASHINGTON - Despite their head-to-head competition in the bTC presidential race, President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole agreed yesterday on an agenda for coming months that would allow each of them small victories, such as finishing spending bills for this year and easing regulation of small businesses.
As the first Senate majority leader ever to challenge an incumbent president in an election, Mr. Dole seemed eager to build a positive record and prove that his ambitions would not interfere with government business.
"We laid out our priorities, the president laid out his priorities, and, hopefully, together we can work out America's priorities," Mr. Dole said after he and other congressional leaders met with Mr. Clinton at the White House.
Neither the president nor the senator offered much hope that grander achievements such as balancing the budget or overhauling the welfare system would emerge.
"I think the president still believes it is doable," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said of the goal to balance the federal budget. "He heard nothing today that indicates it's impossible, but he recognizes that there are significant differences."
The 70-minute meeting to which the Republicans refused to allow press photographers for fear of being used as White House "props," a Republican spokesman said was described by House Majority Leader Dick Armey as "very serious, very sober; everybody understood, it seemed to me, that we want to move this work, get it done."
With Mr. Dole apparently calling the plays, the leaders agreed that the next week and a half would be devoted to finishing the most essential business, including providing spending authority for dozens of departments and agencies, raising the ceiling on government borrowing, and setting the level of crop payments to farmers in time for spring planting.
Mr. Clinton was willing to accept as attachments to those bills an increase in the amount of money senior citizens can earn without losing Social Security benefits, regulatory relief for small businesses and a "line-item veto" that would enable a president to curb spending by vetoing individual items in a spending bill.
While many details remain to be negotiated with the White House, Mr. Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich expressed confidence that they could produce legislation that Mr. Clinton would sign.
"We think it's a fairly impressive list," Mr. Dole said. "This is sort of a cleanup on the 'Contract with America,' " he said, referring to the list of proposals that House Republicans passed in the first 100 days of the session last year, only to see many of them die in the Senate. The line-item veto and regulatory reforms were in the proposal.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House, raised doubts about whether Republican leaders could control hard-line elements in their own party who resist compromise even on relatively routine measures.
A bloc of House Republican freshmen is prepared to fight against approval of the long-overdue spending bill for the numerous unfunded agencies and departments because the Senate added money for pet Clinton programs in education and the environment.
"We're so scared the Republicans will be blamed for another government shutdown, our leaders will agree to anything," said Rep. Mark E. Souder, a freshman from Indiana.
Republican leaders said they plan to bring up at least three other measures on which they expect to win Mr. Clinton's support after Congress returns in mid-April from a two-week Easter recess. The bills include a curb on illegal immigration, an anti-terrorism measure and a proposal that would make health insurance more accessible to people who lose jobs or have health problems.
When Mr. Clinton invited Mr. Dole and other Republican leaders to the White House, he said the prime topic would be prospects for resurrecting balanced-budget talks, which collapsed in January.
But the president bowed to Mr. Dole's suggestion that the issue be revisited next month.
"Ideally, we could get to a budget agreement with the president," Mr. Gingrich said. "However, since he's already vetoed one balanced budget and he's also already vetoed the tax cuts and he's vetoed welfare reform twice, we may not be able to reach a large agreement."
If there seems no prospect of reaching a broad agreement, Republican leaders said they would try to pass and send to Mr. Clinton a proposal to shrink welfare and Medicaid programs and turn them over to the states. The proposal was developed by a bipartisan group of governors.
Pub Date: 3/21/96