LIKE ping-pong balls, federal budget proposals are flying back and forth between the White House and Congress with blurring speed.
The rapid volleys, served up by both Democrats and Republicans, are driving down President Clinton's proposed spending plans for the next five years and threatening portions of his stimulus program for the economy.
The budget game got under way when Mr. Clinton asked Congress for a combination of tax hikes and 150 spending decreases. He proposed cutting deficit spending by $473 billion over five years. But Congress was not satisfied. Moderate Democrats as well as Republicans whacked the ball right back, demanding deeper reductions.
On a morning jog past the Capitol this week, Clinton signaled thumbs up when asked about deeper cuts. Democratic lawmakers quickly responded, moving ahead in the House with recommendations for an additional $63 billion in spending reductions, and in the Senate toward as much as $90 billion more in cutbacks.
Among the suggested cuts by the House: A freeze on all discretionary domestic spending for five years and a reduction in cost-of-living increases for federal civilian and military retirees under the age of 62.
Some Democratic leaders, such as House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, worry that too much chopping on Capitol Hill could threaten the president's recovery program. But tightfisted Democrats are impressed.
Rep. Timothy Penny (D) of Minnesota, a leader in the budget-cutting effort, calls the freeze on domestic spending "a major achievement." He says: "Things are moving our way."
Mr. Penny says that without the cuts, Clinton's budget might not pass. He estimates that approximately 70 moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the House want even deeper cuts. If all 175 Republicans vote against the Clinton plan, Democratic leaders can afford to lose no more than 40 Democrats and still come out on top.
Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution analyst, says Capitol Hill's clamor for spending cuts could improve its bloated, pork-barrel image. The lawmakers' sudden interest in budget-cutting is "fascinating," Mr. Hess says.
"It was supposed to be the other way around," he notes. "It was Congress that was the big spenders.... Yet it is the much-maligned legislative branch that is pulling and tugging [Clinton] toward a sensible debt-reduction package," Hess says. "Very encouraging."
Even so, Republicans would like to go further. Even with all the cuts being added by Capitol Hill, net savings during the next five years will reach only about $112 billion because of new spending programs, Republicans calculate.
Rep. Harris Fawell (R) of Illinois, co-chairman of the Porkbusters Coalition in Congress, notes that Clinton wants an estimated $284 billion in new taxes - or nearly a 3-to-1 ratio of new taxes to net savings.
At midweek, Republicans on the House Budget Committee offered a detailed alternative plan to slash the budget over five years by $429 billion. It achieves this with no new taxes.
Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, the ranking GOP member on the budget committee, says the $429 billion is surely attainable out of a total spending pool of $9 trillion during the next five years.
The Clinton White House indicated from the beginning that it would welcome additional ideas to lower the federal deficit.
The White House also admits that unless its plan is strengthened, the current deficit of $331 billion will decline only slowly - to $262 billion in 1994, $242 billion in 1995, $205 billion in 1996, and $206 billion in 1997.
Last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office increased sentiment for additional spending reductions when it reported that Clinton's plan would fall $67 billion short of its deficit-reduction targets. That set the stage for action by Congress.
Political scientist Earl Black at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., says Congress is reflecting a broad, bipartisan consensus among American voters that "government taxes too much and wastes money."
Reducing the budget is good politics for Clinton and for Congress, Dr. Black says. But there are dangers. "The pain begins when the specifics are put on the table," the professor says. "That is the tricky part. And that's why it is so hard to cut spending."
Nor are Congress's motives entirely altruistic, Black suggests. In less than 20 months, 435 congressmen and one-third of the Senate must stand for reelection. With Clinton calling for higher taxes, including energy taxes that will touch every family, members of Congress "are looking for cover," Black says.