Indecision on Budget Hurts American Image

US leadership in diplomatic, military affairs undamaged, but economic influence suffers

IN the wake of Washington's chaotic weekend search for a budget, the nation's capital ponders two related questions. One is the extent to which the influence President Bush and the United States have been affected by the government's inability to produce a budget without first shutting down federal agencies.

The second is how far the US government is from reaching a final budget for the 1991 fiscal year, which began a week ago.

Despite the budget imbroglio, the influence of American leadership in international diplomatic and military affairs, such as the Gulf crisis, remains as powerful as ever, political scientists say.

But in the international economic arena US influence may have suffered. President Bush ``has been hurt'' further with Germany, Japan, and other nations that have long been critical of the US inability to reduce its deficit, says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.

It is too early to know the impact of the budget mess on the effectiveness of presidential leadership in the US. That depends on how well the government does from now on to complete the detailed process of producing a deficit-reducing budget.

The budget battle ``has just begun,'' says political scientist Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, referring to the increasingly contentious weekend effort to produce a budget resolution that would gain both Democratic and Republican approval.

To end the current crisis, Congress and the president must agree on three actions. The first is a broad but not detailed plan for reducing the deficit. Throughout the holiday weekend, House Democrats sought to take this step first, and in the predawn hours Monday they succeeded in the House, despite rising partisanship and sharp Republican distrust of the process.

The document approved by the House, which filled two-thirds of one page of paper, would cut $40 billion the first year and $500 billion by the end of five years. The spending cuts and tax increases necessary to achieve these goals would be left to individual House committees to specify.

Cuts in Medicare would be substantially less than the $60 billion listed in the original proposal.

The second step is to pass a so-called ``continuing resolution'' that would finance government agencies for a limited number of days or weeks.

Early Monday the House approved such a measure to keep government going until Oct. 20. The third step is to write a detailed law that converts into specifics the generalities of the budget resolution. This likely will be the most difficult task of all.

``We're at the planning stage,'' said Speaker of the House Thomas Foley (D) of Washington prior to the House's action of Monday. ``The actual law will be written about two weeks from now.''

Mr. Mann forecasts ``enormous battles'' to enact it.

What occasioned the weekend frenzy on Capitol Hill - only the seventh time since the end of World War II that the House had met on a Sunday - was a congressional effort to complete the first two stages of the budget so that other agencies of the federal government would not be closed down, besides those shuttered at the start of the weekend.

Mann says that despite the budget impasse of the last few days, it is ``premature'' to judge the effect on the president's ability to lead at home. ``If in the end we get something like [the budget summit] plan through,'' he says, Americans quickly will forget the weekend fiasco.

But if Congress and the president find themselves unable to agree on a detailed budget deficit-reduction plan ``there's going to be a disgust with government across the board - with Congress as well as the president,'' Mann says. ``I think the implications are potentially frightening if everything fails. But I don't think it will.''

The weekend battle was disturbing enough, with government leaders showing their prowess at fingerpointing. ``Yessir, there's great confusion in this House of Representatives,'' drawled Democratic Rep. Sonny Callahan of Alabama. ``The Democrats are blaming the Republicans, and the Republicans are blaming the Democrats. The president is blaming Congress.'' He was right.

The blame game was over important issues, as members of Congress and the administration from time to time pointed out. ``What is at stake is whether America, the world's greatest country, is going to be able to function,'' warned Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico.

Ingredients of the stalemate that brought into question the government's ability to function include: a failed presidential appeal for popular support, a House defeat of the budget resolution agreed to by budget summiteers, a presidential decision to shut down government because of that House action, and House Republican fears that Democrats will ride roughshod over them when shaping the final law in Democratic-dominated committees.

Throughout the weekend words alternated with recesses in the House of Representatives, and a fascinated public saw it all. In the wake of the presidentially-mandated closure of many departments of government - including most Washington tourist attractions, from the 13 Smithsonian buildings to the Washington zoo - tourists packed the public galleries in the House.

``They can't get into the other zoo, so they're coming to this one,'' cracked longtime broadcaster and Washington wit David Brinkley, noting the crowds streaming into the Capitol.

Many analysts and politicians think that Congress ultimately will crank out a detailed budget not greatly different from the one that the House rejected Friday.

``Ninety percent of what's in that budget resolution ultimately will pass,'' forecast Vice-President Dan Quayle.

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