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Sharp Edges and Blunt Talk as 2 Sides Meet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“My guys aren’t going to flinch,” the Speaker of the House told the President of the United States.

After withstanding months of harsh criticism from Democrats for proposing to cut the growth of Medicare spending, House Republicans aren’t about to break ranks, Newt Gingrich told Bill Clinton late Monday from across the long, polished wood conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

“They’re not troubled at all by this,” Gingrich said. “They’re getting hundreds, if not thousands, of calls to hang tough.”

The Georgia Republican’s avowal came as Washington’s top officials finally met eye-to-eye in an often tense, 100-minute session aimed at staving off partial closure of the government.

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Tuesday, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota provided an account of the session that was confirmed by others in the room--Democrats and Republicans alike--as well as by staff members who spoke to the participants afterward, including White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry.

And as Gingrich’s words indicated, those inside the meeting came away with a clear sense that it is the House, rather than the Senate, that will be the hardest negotiating partner for Clinton.

“There’s much more intransigence in the House than there is in the Senate,” Daschle said. “I think that Bob Dole wants to find a resolution on this matter.”

A senior GOP aide agreed. “The House definitely showed a tougher front, although Dole himself was very tough.” The aide said Dole, the Senate majority leader, was simply reflecting the fact that the Senate is more pliable than the House.

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An Administration official added: “Everything about Dole’s body language says: ‘Let’s solve this thing and get this over with now.’ ”

Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) were far less accommodating, participants said.

For instance, when Daschle raised the possibility of averting a government shutdown with an interim bill to continue spending, Gingrich and Armey quickly shot down the notion, sources said.

“They wouldn’t support anything that didn’t enjoy broad Republican support, and most of their members would not accept that,” Daschle recalled.

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The meeting came after days in which the parties had exuded to the outside world nothing but dire warnings, absolute conviction and righteous indignation. Finally, the players came together behind closed doors--the sort of place where most partisan disputes are settled in Washington.

But this time the session, ending just before midnight, failed to settle the dispute or even halt the volleys of rancor being hurled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. And it provided a rare glimpse of the nation’s feuding leaders trying, under enormous pressures, to resolve their jarringly different visions for America.

Along with Clinton, Dole, Gingrich and Armey, those present were Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), along with Clinton’s top aide, Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff. Vice President Al Gore, who had been out of town, arrived late.

There were some surprising admissions and candid observations amid the inevitable posturing, brinkmanship, policy discussions and caustic moments.

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“It was, frankly, different chemistry at different times,” McCurry said. ". . . At times, the exchanges were very sharp and direct, and at other times there was . . . a more lighthearted touch to it.”

After staking out the firm resolve of his Republican troops, participants said, Gingrich went on to make a comment that left Democrats puzzled. Was he inadvertently admitting he had lost control of his right wing, as some have suggested? Was he trying to cement his claim that the Republicans will not budge? Or was he bluffing again in the game of budget poker that has seized the capital for the past week?

Looking at Clinton across the table, Gingrich revealed that he may not be able, after all, to deliver the votes of House Republicans for any compromise agreement that might be reached to end the budget impasse.

Such comments “led us to believe last night that there was very little opportunity to persuade the House Republican Caucus about anything, that they had already made up their minds,” Daschle said Tuesday.

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“And so I’m not sure who’s in control,” Daschle concluded, referring to Gingrich and Armey alike.

The testiest exchange occurred between Clinton and Armey, according to witnesses.

It took place after Armey, described as the most hard-line Republican in the meeting, expressed frustration at having worked so hard on Medicare and Medicaid reform only to find that two relatives, including his mother-in-law, are now worried sick at the prospect of entering a nursing home. Armey blamed Democratic claims that the quality of nursing homes will deteriorate sharply as a result of the GOP agenda.

Such rhetoric, Armey said, “makes it difficult for us to work with the White House,” a GOP aide recalled.

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At that, Clinton flushed with anger and, with a rising voice, recalled that he too had worked hard on reducing the deficit and on health care reform, even though Republicans had been harshly critical of his initiatives.

“These tough shots--I know what they are like,” Clinton said with great passion, sources recalled.

“I know what it’s like to work long hours on these things,” the President added, according to a Republican staff member. “I don’t care that you guys are working hard. I think it’s bad for the country.”

The exchange was confirmed by a Democratic aide who took contemporaneous notes. In an interview, the aide recalled that the President mentioned education, welfare and health care reform, as well as other social issues, and said:

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“I’ve worked on these issues for 25 years. I care deeply about them. I don’t care if I go to 5% in the polls; I think your bill is bad for America and I’m not going to sign it.”

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this story.

* EMPTY POSTS: Workers leave their desks, booths and counters. A12

* RELATED STORIES, PHOTOS, GRAPHICS: A12-13, A15, A16

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