Risks of Clinton's Kinder, Gentler Budget Strategy

COOPERATION instead of continual conflict. That appears to be the new White House strategy for dealing with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Not that Newt Gingrich is about to become Bill Clinton's bosom policy buddy. But in offering his own balanced-budget blueprint, the president seems to have decided that trying to shape coming spending cuts is preferable to just standing back and sniping at GOP plans.

It's a course of action that contains some political risk. Republican lawmakers remain cool to Mr. Clinton's input, while many Democrats are furious - particularly because they feel their efforts to defend the Medicare status quo have now been undercut.

But a more active presidential attitude was probably inevitable. With the 1996 election season already under way, Clinton can no longer afford to stand idly by on major issues. "He's still trying as hard as he can to recapture the notion that he's relevant," says Mickey Edwards, a former GOP congressmen who now teaches at Harvard University.

By intervening now and laying out his priorities relatively early in the process, the president also may help prevent budget gridlock later in the year. That's the kind of smoother-running Washington most voters say they want.

Clinton is offering Congress a chance "that could result in compromise, rather than vetoes and train wrecks," noted White House spokesman Michael McCurry.

Maybe something happened to Clinton in the bracing New England air.

Prior to his appearance with Speaker Gingrich in a New Hampshire town forum last Sunday, Clinton had spent weeks honing an anti-GOP message and playing to his Democrat base. Thus he had denounced the opponents of his embattled nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Henry Foster. To labor's glee he'd gotten tough on trade, doubling duties on many Japanese luxury cars. He'd even made some jabs at the GOP for wanting to disadvantage the elderly through their plans to cut Medicare's rate of spending growth.

The Gingrich face-off turned into something of a polite discussion, however, and since then this even tone between the pair has been maintained. It all may end in anger, but for now Clinton has agreed that the goal of eliminating the deficit is something worth pulling for.

"This debate must go beyond partisanship; it must be about what's good for America," he said Tuesday night.

Nuanced differences

Clinton made an effort to delineate different priorities from the GOP spending plans now proceeding through the House and Senate. In particular, he said he wanted to place more emphasis on education, and have tax cuts targeted to the middle class. The Republican goal of balancing the budget in seven years was too severe, Clinton said. He held out a 10-year goal for eliminating the deficit as more reasonable.

But Clinton's outline was notable more for its similarities with GOP efforts than its disparities. That a Democratic president has agreed to work toward a balanced budget marks a major shift in American politics. Against that background a difference of three years in time frame is minor.

The nature of the change can be seen in Washington reaction. Many Republicans had mild praise for the president's transformation, though they painted him a Clinton-come-lately to budget balancing.

Most liberal Democrats, on the other hand, were dismayed and angry. They saw a White House shifting to the right - and they didn't like it.

Liberals specifically didn't like the fact that Clinton offered up his own reductions in Medicare. Though smaller than Republican proposals - the White House would reduce the program's rate of growth by $127 billion over a decade, while the GOP wants reductions of $255 billion or more - Clinton's proposed Medicare changes mean Democrats may have lost a potent political issue.

"I've been jumping off a bridge every night for the administration, saying you shouldn't cut Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the rich. When I jumped this morning, somebody forgot to tie my bungee rope to the bridge," complained Rep. Pete Stark of California, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means health subcommittee.

Facing the problem

It might have been irresponsible of the White House to just continue bashing the GOP over Medicare, however. Almost everyone who studies the issue agrees that the health care for the elderly program is in serious financial difficulty. Clinton could duck his responsibility for Medicare only so long.

"A bipartisan facing of reality is a good thing," notes Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

Clinton hasn't lost all opportunity to make political points just because he's joined the balanced budget discussion, says Mr. Jacobson. Leaving Medicare aside, there are other hot-button issues to come. Take tax cuts.

"They're waiting for the Republicans to overreach themselves," Jacobson says. "They should pray every day that the GOP tries to cut taxes on the wealthy."

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