Both Dems and GOP will brag about budget, though they avoided tough issues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom on the balanced budget plan worked out between the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House is that both sides won. There is much truth to that.

The Republicans got versions of the two remaining keystones of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract With America -- a projected balanced budget by the year 2000 and tax cuts that benefit those in the highest brackets most. According to a Gallup Poll, more Americans said they were prepared to blame the Republicans if it fell through than were ready to blame Mr. Clinton.

President Clinton, for his part, got substantial new spending for the two areas he deems most essential right now to the country's domestic well-being: education and child health care.

Accordingly, although the budget bill was hailed by both sides as a grand demonstration of bipartisanship, each side held its own victory celebration at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The arrangement allowed each side to crow without throwing rocks at the other, which undoubtedly will come later as the next congressional election approaches and each strives to gain partisan advantage for the bipartisan deed.

For Mr. Gingrich, the success is a life preserver of sorts after having been pushed under the waves by House GOP rebels discontented with his brand of leadership and his woeful personal unpopularity with voters.

One way to gauge the level of that discontent is the fact that the dissidents knew all along that the balanced budget deal with tax cuts was well within reach a couple of weeks ago when they hatched their scheme to purge him, but they went ahead anyway.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who has had a tough time projecting himself as a strong leader since he took over the Senate last year, has enhanced his reputation with the budget result. But he and Mr. Gingrich must share the glory with all the Republicans in Congress.

President Clinton, on the other hand, is likely to be credited as the personal savior of high-visibility social programs of chief benefit to traditional Democratic constituencies. With the economy buzzing along and unemployment low, he appears to be surviving easily the congressional hearings spelling out the deplorable if not illegal excesses of his fund-raising.

The Republicans can insist all they want that Mr. Clinton has caved in to them on the budget. But the fact is that the president deftly used his veto threat in the final days to oblige the Republicans to accommodate much of his own budget wish list.

Blown chance for reform

Amid all the talk of how everybody won, however, is the fact that both sides discredited themselves by backing away from the chance to take a concrete step toward dealing with Medicare and Medicaid reform, a key to long-term solvency.

At the 11th hour, they threw in the towel on raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67, and on requiring higher premiums from the better-off elderly. For Mr. Clinton, it was yet another example of his unwillingness to risk spending a little of his greatly accumulated political capital in the face of opposition from powerful Democratic constituencies like the elderly and labor.

Failing to do so is all the more deplorable in light of Mr. Clinton's own endorsement of the two actions and his public statement that he believed voters would approve, and that he would support GOP as well as Democratic legislators who would vote for them. On balance, however, the budget deal is likely to cement Mr. Clinton's popularity more than it will dispel the cloud of confusion and dissension that hovers over the Republicans.

Still, as the good legislators of both parties go home for their August recess, they will now be able to share the bragging rights.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/01/97

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