WASHINGTON -- President Clinton indicated yesterday that he would not fight an amendment to the Constitution to require balanced budget, a signal that he recognizes he cannot block the measure given the Senate's stronger Republican majority.
Clinton, who worked to defeat the popular measure by one Senate vote in 1995, said that when the proposal comes up again he may seek instead to insert an escape clause to provide for the need to fight recessions with deficit spending.
"I just want to make sure that if we have [a balanced budget amendment] it needs to clearly give us the possibility of dealing with a recession," the president said.
This new tact suggests that Clinton doesn't believe he would prevail if he tried again to pressure Democrats to stand with him against the amendment, as he did in 1995. Last year, he persuaded six senators who had previously supported the proposal to vote against it.
The newly elected Senate has two more Republican members, as well as two new Democrats -- Max Cleland of Georgia and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana -- who pledged during their campaigns to support a balanced budget amendment.
"He seems to be coming around to the idea that this is something that is going to happen," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who has not said when a vote on the proposal will occur.
The proposed constitutional amendment, which easily passed the House in 1995, would have to be ratified by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states to become law. It would require a vote by a three-fifths "supermajority" in Congress to approve a budget deficit.
Apart from Clinton's softening on the amendment, there was no real movement yesterday by either the president or Republican congressional leaders in their first meeting since last week's election returned a divided government to power.
While extolling the virtues of bipartisan cooperation, Clinton and the Republicans made clear there is little chance of speedy progress on other top issues.
During the 80-minute Oval Office session, Clinton presented tentative proposals on three topics: the budget process, Medicare reform and campaign finance reform. He was turned down on all three.
"But it was a productive meeting," said Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, putting the best face on the encounter. "I imagine it's the kind of meeting the president would look forward to having again."
Much of the time was spent reaffirming positions offered over the past few days and testing each other for flexibility. So far, there doesn't seem to be much, though all echoed House Majority Leader Dick Armey's hope for at least a year free from election-driven political posturing.
The Republican lawmakers told Clinton that they were not enthusiastic about his suggestions that they quickly resume negotiations over balancing the budget, or that they assign the most delicate decision in that process -- curbing the growth of Medicare -- to a bipartisan commission.
Instead, they suggested that Clinton first submit his own specific proposals for Medicare and for dealing with the entire budget as part of the regular approval process that begins in February.
"The president will need to make it clear that we have important and tough decisions we need to make in that area," said Lott of Mississippi, one of many Republicans still irritated with Clinton for turning Republican efforts to restrain Medicare costs into a campaign issue.
"When he lays out the problem and suggests some solutions, we are certainly going to be prepared to work with him, then to come to the proper result," Lott told reporters.
As McCurry put it, "They basically said, 'You first.' "
Clinton also urged the Republican leaders to get behind a drive -- which, he said last week, could be completed "lickety-split" -- to move legislation through Congress to tighten campaign finance laws.
That plea ran aground on Republican interest in first examining questions raised in the campaign, particularly about the work of John Huang, a senior Democratic fund-raiser who was collecting money for Clinton from foreign business interests.
"I think we all feel a concern, as the American people do, for finding out exactly what happened, how much money is involved, where did it come from," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. "And then, secondly, you need to try to find a way to write a good campaign finance reform bill that really does cover the totality of campaigning, not just the candidates."
The president, who was battered by Republicans on the campaign-finance issue in the late stages of the presidential campaign, is clearly eager to move the spotlight on to legislative reforms.
Clinton made the case, McCurry said, that a bipartisan campaign finance proposal offered in the last Congress could be amended to include a provision on foreign contributions.
"If we're serious about addressing these issues, the way to do it is through legislation that can move and can move rather quickly," McCurry said the president had argued.
Pub Date: 11/13/96