Bush Agrees to Soften His Political Rhetoric : Budget: He meets with Democratic leaders on the deficit. Later, on a political swing, he takes gentle swipes at congressional spending habits.


Just hours after congressional Democrats won from him a promise to tone down his political attacks, President Bush Tuesday served up two spicy platters of partisan rhetoric at a Republican fund-raising luncheon and dinner.

But he did it without attacking the Democrats directly.

Bush met at the White House with senior members of the congressional leadership Tuesday morning in a two-hour session intended to narrow differences on cutting the federal budget deficit. Afterwards, his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said that the President would call a temporary cease-fire in his recent round of sharp attacks.

"He'll be very gentle," the White House press secretary said.

So, instead of delivering the raw-meat rhetoric that had drawn the ire of Democratic participants in the budget talks, Bush simply pointed out in his political speeches that in the specific agencies covered by already approved appropriations bills, his budget request for 1991 had sought just under $188 billion and Congress had appropriated more than $202 billion. And, he pointed out, the measures were passed by the "Democrat-controlled House."

"As long as spending runs out of control in Congress, the American people will pay the price," Bush said at a luncheon in Philadelphia, the first stop on a day that included an anti-drug rally in a West Philadelphia community where residents have formed patrols to chase out drug dealers. Later he spoke at a political fund-raising dinner in New York.

The President praised "those Democrats in the leadership who are now working with me."

But at the same time, he criticized Congress for adding $1 billion in domestic spending to his $800-million program of assistance for Panama and Nicaragua and said: "That wild spending habit is hard to break."

He kept up the pace in New York, saying: "We all know that the Democrats have a long track record on spending. But if the Berlin Wall could come down in the same year that America goes nuts over the 'Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles,' who knows what's next?"

And he added: "The leaders of Congress can work with me to break the impasse on reducing the budget deficit. The spotlight is on both sides to place progress over partisanship.

"But as long as the liberal mind-set dominates, we will be forced to measure our successes in catastrophes averted and calamities mitigated," he said.

The budget meeting Tuesday morning was the first of four that Bush has scheduled this week with the top Democrats in the House and Senate.

"The President feels they made progress," Fitzwater said after the meeting.

"They're working in a spirit of harmony and compromise. In fact, they agreed this morning . . . that they would try to keep the rhetoric under control and really try to make this a productive week of work," he told reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush began his travels.

As for Bush, he had little to say during a photo session at the start of the meeting. Before reporters could ask any questions, he waved them off, saying: "Don't even try. I'm in a bad mood today." He did not explain.

Once the meeting got down to business, the congressional leaders complained that--in ridiculing the budget process during a political swing through the West last week and suggesting that it was up to the Democrats to make concessions--Bush had hurt the climate for achieving a bipartisan agreement.

"One of the things discussed today was to stop the political debate and start the substantive debate and to try to cut down on the political comment that's gone on on all sides," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a participant in the talks, told reporters. "I think you're going to see that that will happen. I think a lot of that's out of everybody's system."

But for all the pledges of political harmony--or at least a temporary truce--it was clear after the meeting that the negotiators had a great deal of ground to cover. Their effort is directed at closing the projected gap in the budget. The Administration has estimated that the deficit in fiscal 1991, which begins Oct. 1, will be nearly $169 billion. The target set by the Gramm-Rudman budget-balancing law is a $64-billion gap.

Any agreement is aimed at allowing Congress and the White House to avoid having to implement mandatory cuts under Gramm-Rudman, which would mean Draconian trims of more than $100 billion.

The negotiators appear to have reached a consensus in favor of a broad-based energy tax, with additional revenues from raising cigarette and liquor taxes. A key stumbling block remains Bush's insistence on a reduction of the capital gains tax.

On spending, Republicans have favored leaving Social Security untouched, while cutting Medicare expenditures, while the Democrats would freeze Social Security benefits increases and raise Social Security taxes.

During his Philadelphia speech, Bush was briefly interrupted by two hecklers, one of whom stood up among the guests and said: "Why are we funding death squads in El Salvador?"--a reference to U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government, which is engaged in a war against leftist guerrillas. The hecklers were led out of the room.

Staff writer Tom Redburn in Washington contributed to this story.

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