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Balanced-Budget Agreement Eludes a Grouchy Congress

The mood on Capitol Hill is distinctly sour as Congress heads home for its two-week Easter recess.

Democrats are still fuming over the Senate's treatment of former CIA nominee Anthony Lake, for one thing. And in recent days lawmakers have voted on or debated a series of divisive issues, from "partial-birth" abortions to the president's decision to recertify Mexico as a drug-war ally.

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Meanwhile, Republicans are arguing among themselves over budget balancing and tax-cutting tactics. And they remain unhappy about the president's budget plan. Some 98 percent of the cuts Mr. Clinton has proposed to help the budget reach balance by 2002 don't kick in until he leaves office, GOP lawmakers claim.

"What the president is saying is, 'Under the next president and under a Congress two times from now, we'll get the job done,' " says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut.

Democrats retort that it's time for the majority to produce its own proposal if it doesn't like the president's.

"So far they've sat on the sidelines taking shots at the Democrats' budget," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Whither tax cuts

The consumer price index has been a point of particular budget contention.

Republicans were upset when Clinton last week rejected proposals to explore adjusting the CPI, something he had hinted he might support. Many economists think the CPI overstates inflation, inflating Social Security payments and deflating revenues.

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Without a CPI adjustment and some reigning in of Medicare growth, it's hard to find the money for tax cuts, Republicans say. And they are not about to take on the CPI issue without the president and a majority of Democrats on board.

"The president is going to have to grab hold of this and hug it real snug," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Democrats, on the other hand, claim the GOP's proposed tax cuts would mainly benefit the wealthy, while the president's are "targeted" towards those who need them.

Republicans waited for weeks for the president to respond to their criticisms of his proposal while Democrats dared them to produce their own. This week, GOP leaders started speculating out loud about how to get the process moving.

House GOP whip Tom DeLay of Texas put forward one idea - that Republicans balance the budget first, then cut taxes later. While Senator Lott threw cold water on the idea, House Speaker Newt Gingrich seemed to endorse it. The result was angry conservatives and a leadership that appeared to be in disarray.

"I am confused, to say the least, about Republican positions these days," Senator Daschle said Tuesday.

"We got to fulminating out loud a little too much," Lott admits. But GOP leaders insist they are reading from the same page: a tax cut and a balanced budget - but perhaps not in the same bill.

Reassuring conservatives

Republicans also moved to assure conservatives they had just changed tactics, not left the faith. "Nobody's dropping the idea of a tax cut," insisted House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas. "Naturally, there's a lot of discussion about how do we best proceed."

The president and his staff met with congressional budget writers Wednesday. The sides agreed on little other than to step up bargaining over the next few weeks, although it appears that adjusting the CPI is again open for discussion.

Lott says that while he still hopes Congress and the president can reach an agreement, Republicans are ready to shift their approach, find like-minded Democrats, and forge their own budget. "We have crossed through a place, and we are in a different place now," he says.

Mr. Armey says he expects Congress to produce a budget by early May.

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