WASHINGTON — The budget deal between President Clinton and congressional Republicans balancing the federal books by 2002 is about far more than numbers.
It's about how much federal tax Americans will pay. It's about whether to build bridges, about the future of Medicare, about federal aid to education. In short, it's about what national priorities should be, and that's why the political struggle over the nation's budget is so fierce - and, in one sense, still has a long way to go.
Last year the process ended in stalemate and government shutdowns. This year, it's all smiles and handshakes, at least for now.
Mr. Clinton, Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Senate majority leader Trent Lott all gain from the deal. The president wins plaudits from many by making tough decisions but protecting Democratic priorities. The Speaker gets credit for helping broker the deal and shows he can govern responsibly.
But the biggest winner appears to be Mr. Lott. Working closely with Mr. Gingrich, he quarterbacked the Republican team, often speaking directly with the president when negotiations were at an impasse.
Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, one of the GOP negotiators, probably spoke for many in his party when the budget deal was announced: "Without Trent Lott we could never have made this agreement," he said.
Still, the deal is the beginning, not the end, of a long process. Both houses of Congress must pass a budget resolution. But such resolutions are only guidelines. Congress must then enact the guidelines into law in appropriations and reconciliation bills.
Chokepoints from here
That could take the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Opponents of the agreement will likely fight its implementation at every turn. "The history generally is that budget resolutions are easier to pass than appropriations bills," says Rep. Martin Sabo (D) of Minnesota, former chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Republicans and Democrats in both houses express support for the package. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House minority whip David Bonior of Michigan believe a majority of Democrats in each house will vote in favor.
But some liberal House Democrats are outraged: Rep. Charles Rangel of New York told CNN's "Evans & Novak" that the poor get "absolutely nothing out of the tax benefits."
Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, a fiscal conservative, was an early GOP dissenter. "This thing will be like a dead fish. You set it on the table for three or four days and it will begin to stink," he told the Associated Press. But Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island estimates that no more than 20 senators from both parties will vote no, while Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, a GOP leader, predicts House Republicans will approve.
Some of the acrimony stems from the way the deal was brokered. Usually a budget proposal goes through weeks of hearings, floor fights, and then conferences between the two chambers. The GOP strategy this time was to cut the deal with the president first, then move it through Congress.
The strategy infuriated congressional Democrats. Even those supportive of the final deal complain about the way it was negotiated between a small group of White House staff and legislators. "This is not the way to legislate," Senator Daschle said before the accord was announced.
Let's make a deal
But Senator Chafee, a moderate GOP veteran, defends the approach. "That's the only way you can put one of these together. You can't do it in a filled hall."
Negotiators were helped in the final hours by a Congressional Budget Office recalculation that found $225 billion in additional revenue over the next five years. Among the deal's provisions:
*A balanced budget in 2002.
*$135 billion in tax cuts over five years.
*Some $600 billion to $700 billion in entitlement savings over 10 years.