THE clash between the Congress and President Clinton over the budget ''could easily last 90 days,'' the Speaker of the House said at a Monitor breakfast yesterday. The result could be a long-term shutdown of some federal agencies.
The president could end the conflict immediately if he signed the Republicans' proposed stopgap funding measure, or continuing resolution, which has ''an absolute commitment to balance the budget in seven years,'' Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia said.
''If he doesn't want to do that, then we're going to start selectively reopening those parts of the government people miss, and we're just going to not worry about the parts of the government people don't miss,'' Mr. Gingrich said.
It would, in effect, result in a backdoor method of cutting down the size of the federal government, an important aim of the Congress's new Republican majority. Currently, about 800,000 out of 2 million civilian federal employees are on furlough while the president and Congress face each other down on spending.
First, Gingrich said, Congress would look at funding for the Interior Department, so that - if the president signed it - national parks and the Smithsonian could reopen. Then Congress could offer a ''targeted continuing resolution'' to reopen Social Security offices, then passport offices, then veterans' offices.
On the question of pay for furloughed federal workers, Gingrich said: ''If it lasts more than a week, we might have to find some interim way of [paying them].''
Gingrich linked the tension between the White House and Congress to the US delegation's trip to Israel for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. During 25 hours of flight time, Clinton and his aides made no effort to talk with Gingrich and Senate majority leader Bob Dole about the looming budget crisis, Gingrich said.
Clinton's staff even asked Gingrich and Mr. Dole to exit from a rear door of the plane, instead of from the front, when they returned to the US, he added.