NEWS ANALYSIS : The Talking Is Giving Way to Listening


Americans hire a president and a Congress to work out a federal budget, but on Tuesday the nation’s leaders apparently threw in the towel and, in effect, appealed to the people to tell them which way to go.

Neither side in the marathon budget talks believed that it could move further toward a compromise--not because of the billions of dollars at stake but because their own political identities were on the line.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that the people elected them to balance the budget, cut spending and lower taxes. President Clinton said that the people wanted him to balance the budget but also to defend Medicare and other social programs against deep cuts in future spending.


So like contract negotiators unsure how far their clients are willing to move, they decided to go back to their constituents and ask.

At the same time, fearing the voters’ wrath over a continued deadlock, each side insisted that it had already gone the extra mile toward compromise.

“The rhetoric has gotten more temperate but the results have gotten less satisfactory,” noted Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “There’s more concern here about who comes out looking good than any domestic negotiation I can remember. It’s nice that these guys have gotten to know each other better but the voters want an agreement.

“At this point, they’ve got to go back and poll their constituencies and get a sense of where they can move,” he said. “The problem is the constituencies they’re addressing seem to be those with die-hard views: the Democrats who say, ‘Protect all entitlements,’ and the Republicans who say, ‘Protect all the tax cuts.’ ”

Now each side is going to the public to try to build support for its position--and plumb the potential dangers of failing to move further.

Clinton plans to give a rare news conference later this week, to press his argument that the main obstacle in the way of a budget is the Republicans’ refusal to scale back their tax cuts.


Dole and Gingrich intend to talk about their version of the talks, which argues that the GOP has already scaled back its tax-cut proposals by 50%.

Indeed, even as Clinton and his Republican adversaries professed to have seen signs of real progress in their talks, they reaffirmed their attachment to the positions that have blocked agreement.

Clinton said that the GOP was still demanding “cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that we believe are well beyond what is necessary.” The Republicans said that their cuts--actually limits on future growth of spending--are needed to bring those health programs under control.

“What remains is, if you will, the ideological differences over the size and shape of the tax cut and over the size and character of the changes in Medicare and Medicaid and the investments in education and the environment,” Clinton said--in other words, the core of the argument.

Likewise, Dole said, there had been useful discussions of alternative budget numbers but added: “It’s not a debate about numbers. It’s a debate about policies promoting a better, more prosperous future--and failed policies of the past.”

That was about as acid as any of the budget debaters would allow their rhetoric to run after the day’s failed talks. One lesson all absorbed from the bruising battles of the last two months--in which Gingrich and his House Republicans managed to turn a winning majority into a reputation for sour obstructionism--was that the public wants its leaders to seek compromise.


Gingrich abandoned his old rhetoric of revolution for sweet reason, repeatedly ducking reporters’ invitations to criticize Clinton. “I don’t think that’s what the American people want . . . “ he said. “The real pressure on all of us is that the American people want a balanced budget and want leadership that gets to a balanced budget.”

And Clinton professed to have found the negotiations a character-building experience. “We have certainly learned a lot from each other,” he said.

When a reporter asked the president to repeat his complaint that the GOP tax cut would disproportionately benefit the wealthy, Clinton declined the invitation. “There are . . . some things in their tax program which is kind of skewed upward; there are also some other very good things in their program,” he said.

But although their words were conciliatory, their actions said “no deal.”

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said that he wants to take the GOP budget to a vote on the House floor--a move that would largely cement the Republicans to their current position.

Gingrich said that he would seek to recruit more conservative and moderate Democrats to the GOP budget plan, another way to put pressure on Clinton.

Meanwhile, Clinton said that he offered the Republicans a last-minute proposal for a smaller tax cut that he portrayed as a possible breakthrough--but GOP aides dismissed it as an unserious “grandstand play.”


At the end of their news conference Tuesday, both Republican leaders sounded a little bleak.

A reporter asked whether they thought any real progress had been made, and Dole shrugged.

“I think some,” he said flatly. “Don’t you, Newt?”

The speaker paused for a long moment, and shrugged too.

“Some,” he repeated.