Clinton's budget is losing its luster After day of scrutiny, major GOP concerns


WASHINGTON -- A day after the unveiling of President Clinton's $1.7 trillion budget plan, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott signaled how hard it will be to forge a budget deal by pointedly asserting that the Clinton budget uses "shell games" and "re-cooked" figures to achieve balance in 2002.

"I am gravely depressed about what I have seen," Lott said in the sharpest criticism to date of the Clinton plan by a congressional leader. "It looks more like a political document to me than a serious budget document. It is disappointing to me that he didn't show more political courage."

Republicans have acknowledged that Clinton got the best of them in last year's budget showdowns -- at least in the court of public opinion. In contrast to the partisan warfare of last year, congressional leaders have struck a more conciliatory tone in recent weeks.

But yesterday, having studied the 10-inch-thick set of documents for a day, the Mississippi Republican phoned the White House and expressed his concerns directly to the president.

Asked about Clinton's reaction, Lott replied: "He was maybe a little taken aback that I felt as strongly as I did."

At the White House, the president sounded neither surprised nor discouraged.

"I took no offense about what he said today," Clinton told reporters. "I think he thinks that maybe there's a bigger difference between us, and we'll have to work harder, but we always knew we were going to have to work hard to reconcile the differences between us. We can do this."

The work will begin at 11 a.m. Tuesday, when the president will take the rare step of going to Capitol Hill to meet congressional leaders on their turf. Yesterday, Lott showed up in shirt sleeves at his formal news conference to demonstrate his willingness to "sit down, roll up our sleeves, forget what's been said, forget the campaign, and see if we can get down to work" on tough negotiations.

At a Senate Budget Committee hearing yesterday, the chairman, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, told the administration's budget director, Franklin D. Raines, that he, too, was willing to put in the effort required to balance the budget.

"We're willing to work with the administration in a spirit of cooperation to try to improve upon it," Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, said. Alluding to Clinton's common refrain about building a bridge to the 21st century, Domenici smiled and added a gentle needle: "It is a bridge still under construction."

Before the hearing, Domenici presented Raines with a yellow helmet. "This is a hard hat, useful in bridge building," he said. "We're not cutting the ribbon yet. To get to the ribbon cutting, you ought to put on a hard hat."

If the GOP feels constrained after the 1996 campaign about turning the budget fight into a battle with Clinton, there is much in his budget they detest, including:

The size of Clinton's proposed tax cuts. The $98 billion cut over five years offered by the president is half what Republicans are proposing. Moreover, the taxes are more than offset by $76 billion in new corporate taxes and excise taxes, such as the 10 percent airline tax and by $47 billion in new user fees, such as new charges on food processors and new drugs.

The fine print reveals that if the budget isn't on track to balance -- and Republicans insist it won't be -- the tax cuts will disappear after 2000.

"If we're going to give tax cuts," said Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, "let's make them permanent."

The amount of new spending. The figures were not easily identifiable because last year the president submitted a six-year blueprint for a balanced budget instead of a five-year blueprint as he did this year. It appears that Clinton is proposing to spend $152 billion more over the same five years as he proposed last year.

Partly for this reason, the deficit, which is lower than in 12 years, would rise again next year under the Clinton plan.

"You have to go back to the 1960s, to the mid-1960s, to find that kind of growth in non-defense spending," Gramm said.

The president's rosy economic projections. Under Clinton's plan, the budget moves from a deficit of $36 billion in fiscal year 2001 to a sudden surplus of $17 billion in 2002. To do this, the president's budget staff must forecast the longest recession-free period in postwar American history, a slowdown in Medicare spending that critics say his budget won't achieve and one-time government windfalls that he may be exaggerating anyway.

To achieve balance in 2002, Clinton's budget counts on several one-time bonanzas, including $14.8 billion in revenue from sale of the broadcast spectrum, an estimate larger than the administration has ever made before -- and one Lott scoffed at yesterday.

Clinton's delaying the painful choices until later. Although the president and his budget director touted the positive effects of balancing the budget and controlling spending, his budget leaves to future Congresses and future presidents the tough decisions about where to make the deep spending cuts. Under his balanced-budget proposal, two-thirds of the necessary cuts would have to be made in 2001 and 2002, when Clinton will be out of office.

The president is proposing spending $56 billion more in fiscal year 1998 than in the current year, an increase of 3.4 percent. Clinton would raise that figure even higher, to 4.4 percent, the next year. Under his plan, spending doesn't decline lower than inflation until after 2000 -- and the cuts he has in mind are unspecified or general in nature.

Even Democrats concede this. But they point out that the same principle was at work in last year's Republican plan.

"In fairness, if we look at last year's budget resolution by the Republican Congress, it is on precisely the same path, or very nearly the same path, as the Clinton 1998 budget proposal," said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat. "So if we're just going to be straight with people, all of these budget plans are back-end-loaded, because their savings are cumulative."

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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