Beneath Washington Civility, Maneuvers for Next Round

New budget strategy seems to be: Speak softly to the cameras and carry a big stick backstage

IN recent days, the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans have been behaving like sibling rivals at dinner. On the surface, they appear as if they're attempting to get along. But underneath the table they're still trying to kick each other in the shins.

Thus both sides now piously insist that the squabbling that marked Government Shutdown 1 and 2 is behind them - while they continue to quietly maneuver for advantage on the budget, welfare reform, and other hot-button issues. Don't expect this strained civility to last forever. Warning signs of open combat are already reappearing. It's a presidential election year, after all.

''Sweetness and light won't prevail for very long,'' says Gary Jacobson, a scholar of Congress at the University of California at San Diego.

Politeness is relative, and what passes for the language of courtesy in Washington probably wouldn't pass muster in Sunday school. But it's clear that President Clinton's smooth State of the Union speech last week changed the atmosphere in the nation's capital.

In what was likely a preview of campaign themes, Mr. Clinton's message was for the most part one of reasonableness and moderation. Republicans groaned that he had co-opted many of their themes, and that in any case his friendly language masked numerous political barbs.

But with polls showing that many Americans blamed them for the budget stalemate, GOP leaders decided that it was better to retreat than fight. Government Shutdown 3 has (so far) been avoided. The battle of seven-year budget-balance plans is in abeyance.

But it isn't clear if Republicans have entirely abandoned their hopes of forcing immediate fiscal change.

The issue now is a congressional vote to raise the debt limit, which the White House insists must take place before the first of next month if the US is to avoid unprecedented government default. It's a delicate issue for Republicans: Debt-limit politics makes Wall Street anxious, and House Speaker Gingrich has said he won't attach any conditions to the vote that Clinton doesn't agree with.

But some GOP House members want to take a harder line. House Ways and Means chairman Rep. Bill Archer (R) of Texas said Tuesday that he'd try hard to attach a capital-gains tax cut to the debt-limit bill. Votes on Medicare and Medicaid reform riders are also possible.

''There will be no debt ceiling [bill] that will not have some additional matters attached to it,'' Representative Archer told a Washington budget-policy forum.

Some House Republicans also have hopes of using welfare reform as a subtle political weapon.

They want Congress to pass the Senate version of a welfare-reform bill, which Clinton has previously endorsed. It would be difficult for the president to veto such a bill, as he did an earlier, more sweeping welfare-reform measure. Yet liberal Democrats hate the Senate welfare legislation (Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York called it ''obscene'') and would be furious if the president signed it.

SUCH tactics might play into a larger Republican defensive strategy: Don't confront Clinton directly, but take every opportunity to try and pin him down on issues. Make him be specific about policy.

If you're a Republican aiming for party victory in November, ''you have to make Clinton a more divisive figure,'' says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M. ''If he is a consensual figure he is going to win.''

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have themselves been somewhat restive. It's all well and good for their titular party head to cruise above the fray, calling for common ground and complimenting his wife. But they want to play a little offense - the GOP is on the defensive for the first time in months, after all.

''We want to keep the heat on,'' noted Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota at a press conference this week.

Senator Daschle and his fellows have complained loudly about GOP efforts to adjourn at the end of this week, saying that with all the budget uncertainty it's a particularly bad time to leave town.

They've also hit hard at the Republican suggestions of conditions for the debt-limit bill. That kind of confrontation didn't work in Government Shutdown 1 and 2, House minority leader Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri insisted to reporters.

''If [voters] didn't accept it on shutting down the government, I can guarantee you they won't accept it on defaulting on the debt,'' said Representative Gephardt.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Washington's month of budget wrangling may have had at least one positive effect. Surprise - it may have reduced the deficit.

Little-noticed figures released by the Treasury Department this week reported that the deficit for the first three months of fiscal 1996 was $56 billion - 24 percent lower than the comparable period from a year before. One reason for the decline: The budget battles have slowed down executive agency spending processes.

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