WASHINGTON -- In an unusual gesture of bipartisanship, President Clinton met with Republican leaders on their turf yesterday, and together they produced a list of topics on which they might reach agreement in advance of a balanced-budget deal.
Invited by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined Republican and Democratic lawmakers for an unprecedented brainstorming session in the President's Room off the Senate chamber.
During the session, the participants found enough common ground on five issues -- education reform, tax cuts, juvenile crime, jobs for welfare recipients and the District of Columbia -- to designate them for high-level talks that might lead to early agreements.
But they pointedly kept off their list topics on which they sharply disagree.
These include campaign finance reform, an overhaul of Medicare and an expansion of health care coverage for uninsured children.
All those involved in the discussion yesterday pronounced it a positive step toward avoiding the partisan rancor that has marred budget negotiations over the past four years and led to two partial shutdowns of the government.
"It was an overall good session, and the atmosphere was the best I've seen it in quite some time," Lott told reporters afterward.
Gore described the tone of the meeting as "really uniformly excellent."
"There was acknowledgment of some of the disagreements that we have, but an agreement to keep those disagreements from generating the kind of tension that would slow down progress in the areas where we know we can eventually find agreement," Gore said.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle suggested that Clinton has "seen fit to take the extra step, sort of the unprecedented step, in coming with the vice president to our meeting today in the Capitol."
Typically, negotiations between Congress and the president don't begin until weeks or months after he proposes his budget in late January or early February.
Two years ago, when the Republicans took over Congress, they ignored Clinton entirely until after they passed their own budget plan in the fall of 1995.
Negotiations dragged on until March 1996.
For both sides, the session yesterday signaled that they recognize how cynical voters have become about the bickering.
Polls showed that some Republicans suffered in the 1996 election in part because many voters blamed their party for the budgetary impasse that caused the partial government shutdowns.
Now, Congress and the White House want to show they are making a genuine effort to cooperate.
Clinton, having won re-election last fall, seems interested in achieving results that could establish his presidential legacy.
"It's obvious to all of us that the American people have spoken," said Rep. Tom DeLay, the House Republican whip. "They elected a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, and they want us to work together."
The meeting came as Congress is about to begin work on the budget Clinton proposed last week and on other initiatives from his State of the Union address.
In a departure from past practice, Clinton and the lawmakers decided to try to find areas of agreement first and to fight about their differences later.
They agreed, though, that any progress they made on the five target areas would have to fit into the framework of a balanced budget.
Two of the topics came at Clinton's urging: tax incentives for small businesses to hire workers coming off welfare, and education reforms to improve reading skills and set national standards for student achievement.
Lott said an announcement is expected today of a task force that will review existing literacy programs, with a focus on how they might be consolidated or redesigned to fit Clinton's goals.
A third area, proposed by Lott, was juvenile crime, its prevention and punishment.
Gingrich proposed that the national leaders put the District of Columbia on their quick-action agenda, arguing that the troubled national capital city could serve as a laboratory for crime and education proposals.
"We should focus on the District of Columbia, in particular in emphasizing certain goals," the speaker said, referring specifically to Clinton's goal of assuring that all 8-year-olds can read.
On tax cuts, the two sides agreed that the chairmen of the tax-writing committees in the Senate and House should work together with Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin to determine where Clinton's and Republican goals overlap.
Like a balanced budget, a tax-cut package of some kind is almost certain to be produced.
Among the questions to be decided is how far the president will move toward the Republicans in reducing capital-gains taxes.
Clinton, in turn, is pushing for Republican support for his proposed tax breaks to help students go to college.
Yesterday's summit will probably only delay the inevitable political battles to come.
But, at best, it could allow the two sides to reach agreement in some areas first and then focus on their more intractable disputes over the budget.
"We have had the rancor, and we have had the wars and we got less of our legislative objectives completed than what we might otherwise get," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said of the past four years of fighting with Clinton. "So we are moving the ball in the same direction."
Pub Date: 2/12/97