President Bush met with congressional leaders today in an effort to propel budget talks forward, but a top House budget writer said details on "tough choices" were still missing.
Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said the hourlong breakfast session at the White House dealt more with process than with details of the $1.16-trillion spending plan.
"It was important for us to emphasize we're on the right track. And we are," Panetta told reporters after the meeting.
But, he added, "when does he (Bush) start to make the tough choices? That's part of the process here, to find out what the choices are."
House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said the meeting "was not a discussion about details" but an effort "to discuss how we might proceed in the future, to discuss the process."
The session included Democratic and Republican leaders from both houses as well as heads of the congressional budget, appropriations and tax-writing committees.
Congress faces an April 15 deadline for completion of its version of the budget.
Bush's participation in the budget-writing process is unusual in that it comes less than two weeks after he submitted his proposed $1.16-trillion spending plan, before any votes on spending decisions have been held by committees in either chamber.
"It's a ratcheting-up of the process," presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said in advance of today's meeting.
"Its purpose is to keep the momentum going," said Fitzwater, noting that it was Bush's first meeting with congressional leaders since the President's address to a joint House-Senate session nearly two weeks ago.
But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) complained today before the start of a budget hearing on Capitol Hill that "there appears to be a difference between the promise and the performance" of Bush's budget.
"At every step of the way," Sasser said, "we are presented with a rosy but unrealistic economic forecast of declining deficits and diminished fiscal problems, giving the American people a false sense of security."
The senator noted that the Administration still had not defined a necessary $10-billion reduction in domestic programs for 1990, leaving Congress with no idea where the President wants to cut.
'Where the Pain and Gain Is.'
"Let's have the facts about what is in the Bush budget," Sasser said. "Let's have the details about where the cuts and adds are--where the pain and gain is--in this budget."
Budget Director Richard G. Darman opened two days of testimony before the Senate and House budget committees with a defense of Bush's spending plan as realistic. Leaving the details of spending cuts for future negotiations was acknowledging where those decisions would be made, he said.
But Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee said they see it as a political ploy.
"I just don't see this as a serious initiative," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.)
Democrats say Bush listed politically popular initiatives on child care, education and homelessness but did not list the approximately $10 billion in cuts that must be made in other programs to pay for the increases--leaving those unpopular choices to share with Congress.
Fitzwater counters that "some 800 pages of details" have been made available to Congress in addition to the 193-page budget document that Bush submitted Feb. 9.
"They contain a number of policy options," he said, "but not necessarily specific cuts . . . a number of various options."