Federal Budget Warriors Ready to Rejoin the Battle

IT'S eerily quiet in Washington this week, but behind the calm exterior of federal buildings, budget warriors are once again donning their armor.

The battle over the 1996 federal budget resumed yesterday after a five-day Christmas truce as White House and congressional staff met to discuss spending priorities. The partial shutdown of the federal government - a byproduct of the budget impasse - neared the end of its second week, by far the longest closure in history.

The generals in this war, President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders, will meet tomorrow.

But a break in the impasse appeared elusive. And tempers frayed as frustrated Americans - from the chairman of the House Budget Committee to the legions of federal workers who faced the prospect of only a partial paycheck next week - headed into a second holiday weekend without a fully functioning federal government.

At play was a paradox of budget gamesmanship: On the one hand, budgeteers want to create enough discomfort to force the other side to cave in. But at the same time, they don't want to inflict such serious hardship that people are really hurt. Thus, most national parks and museums remained padlocked this week, but 3.3 million veterans received their benefits on time after Congress passed last-minute legislation ensuring checks would be issued.

Clearly, though, Republicans are frustrated that they have apparently not pushed the White House up against the wall hard enough to force it to deal.

In a letter Tuesday to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, House Budget Committee chair Bill Archer (R) of Texas refueled the battle over the federal debt ceiling, which had grown quiet in recent weeks. Mr. Archer warned Mr. Rubin that he was pushing "the bounds of legality and constitutionality" by employing various fiscal maneuvers to keep the federal government from defaulting on its debt.

"I believe that any continued effort by the Treasury Department to avoid the legal debt limit, absent a permanent debt-limit extension in the context of a balanced-budget agreement, would seriously undermine the constitutional balance of power," Archer wrote.

Treasury shot back: "...As the nation's chief financial officer, it is his duty and intention to take all legal steps necessary to assure that the nation's financial obligations - obligations already approved by Congress - are honored."

Rubin has said that he can keep juggling accounts to keep the government afloat until February, by which point he hopes the budget battle will be over. Defaulting on the national debt would inflict serious harm on investor confidence and on the US economy.

PRIVATELY some Republicans seem almost more concerned about Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas than about President Clinton. As the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Dole seems to be tacking toward the center to challenge Clinton head on - in the process, defying some of the harder-line Republicans, especially in the House.

Last Friday, Dole sponsored a measure in the Senate that would declare all 280,000 furloughed federal workers "essential," thus allowing them to return to work. The Senate passed the bill, but in the House, GOP freshmen grumbled that they needed the government shutdown as leverage to force the White House to accept the GOP version of a seven-year balanced budget.

So far, though, that lever hasn't budged the White House. And in the meantime, some federally funded attractions are finding their way around the shutdown.

Yesterday, for example, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of paintings by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer reopened at the National Gallery of Art after organizers took $30,000 from a future exhibition to fund the show through Jan. 3. The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History as well as parts of the National Air and Space Museum have also reopened temporarily with nonfederal money. But for tourists using this week to see the sights in Washington, pickings remained slim.

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