Bush Open to Tax Talk at Summit : Budget: The President admits he’s uncertain if increases are needed to reduce the deficit. He insists he’s willing to ‘discuss everything.’


President Bush entered the increasingly anxious public debate over the federal budget deficit Friday, conceding that he does not know whether it can be curbed without increasing taxes.

But in his first public comments on the controversy since the White House and Congress began highly visible maneuvering last Sunday over the deficit, Bush insisted that he is imposing no conditions on budget negotiations that begin at the White House next Tuesday.

The President’s comments, made at the start of a two-day trip to Texas, South Carolina and Virginia, followed by one day the publication of remarks by his chief of staff, John H. Sununu, who insisted that the White House would reject any effort to raise taxes.

The impact of Sununu’s comments was to inflame uneasy congressional Democrats, who had grown increasingly fearful that the budget negotiations would become a political trap in which the White House would position itself as the opponent of unpopular tax increases proposed by Democrats.


But Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), who was traveling with Bush, said he believes the so-called budget summit is “on track--as long as we keep these fellows in line who are trying to redefine it.” Bentsen is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and will participate in the negotiations.

Bush and congressional leaders agreed last Sunday to begin the private talks on the ballooning budget deficit in the wake of rising interest rates, a recent increase in unemployment and predictions that government revenues in fiscal 1991 will be lower than anticipated. By seeking to work out a joint solution to the untamed deficit, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate and the Republican White House hope they can avoid political pitfalls or at least share the blame if unpopular choices must be made.

Without an agreement to boost government revenue, trim spending, or both, Budget Director Richard G. Darman has warned, severe across-the-board spending cuts will be imposed on the federal budget to bring the fiscal 1991 deficit to $64 billion as required by the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law.

Darman has estimated that, in the absence of reduced spending and greater government income, that target could be missed by as much as $100 billion in a $1.2-trillion budget.

Under the Gramm-Rudman law, the budget must be balanced by fiscal 1993, which begins on Oct. 1, 1992. Specific, decreasing deficit targets must be met each year along the way.

The announcement last Sunday that there would be no “preconditions” in the budget talks was widely interpreted as a signal that Bush might be willing to retreat from his 1988 campaign pledge of “no new taxes.”

Senior White House officials sent out multiple signals--some saying that “no preconditions” meant Bush was open-minded on the subject, while others urged caution in interpreting it to mean a tax hike is on the way. And conservative Republicans urged Bush to stand firm in opposing higher taxes.

After remaining publicly silent on the matter all week, Bush at first sought to duck any response Friday, telling reporters: “You can come at me all day long.”

But, pressed about whether there was any way to balance the budget without increasing revenues, he acknowledged that he is uncertain, and he made no mention of his opposition to tax increases.

“See what happens. We just don’t know. Go there; go there and discuss everything,” he replied.

With the controversy over the deficit and possible tax hikes showing no sign of abating, Bush called for calm--and adherence to the negotiation ground rules: An open mind to all approaches to bring down the deficit but secrecy in the conduct of the talks.

“I don’t contribute to it if I start telling about my approach or what I think is the right way to do it, try to dictate to anybody. But I’ll be there with no preconditions,” he said, after approaching reporters even before Air Force One was airborne at the start of the journey to Kingsville, where Bush spoke at Texas A&I; University.

“You can’t react to every charge and countercharge or some flamboyant congressman up there blasting away at me,” Bush said. “I don’t think that’s the way a President should conduct himself.

“Tomorrow there’ll be another tidal wave, so keep your snorkel above the water level and do what you think is right. That’s exactly what my mom told me when I was about 6. Do your best. Do your best. I’m trying hard. Stay calm.”

But despite such advice, the President seemed peeved at repeated questions about the likelihood of a tax increase--a step that would place him in the politically difficult position of making a public retreat from the centerpiece of his 1988 campaign just before the 1990 congressional elections

Bush also appeared bothered by a suggestion that Sununu was in trouble as a result of the comments the chief of staff made on the President’s unwillingness to recommend a tax increase.

“That’s silly. So stupid,” Bush said, adding that his congressional critics are not “in trouble either.”