Shutdown II: Same Plot, Harsher Talk

IN the movie business, sequels are often worse than the original picture. That's a trend Washington budget politics is currently imitating: Government Shutdown II is turning out to be even uglier than last month's Shutdown I.

Fewer government workers would be idled in a continuing fiscal impasse than in the first federal closure last month. But the degree of political accusation seems higher this time, with Democrats and Republicans bitterly blaming each other and no serious negotiations in sight. The level of animosity seems such that many politicians are beginning to believe the standoff could easily continue indefinitely.

"I'm not so sure we're going to have those federal agencies working by Christmas. We're really at a standstill," Rep. Jim Moran (D) of Virginia, who counts many government workers among his constituents, said morosely over the weekend.

War-weariness, not substantive negotiations, may be the key to finding a solution. The impasse may not end until one side or the other believes its political fortunes are declining precipitously as a result of the fighting.

As of this writing, there remained a possibility that Shutdown II would quickly end. President Clinton Sunday called for Republicans to get into the spirit of the holiday season and pass a temporary spending bill to end the standoff.

For his part, Mr. Clinton may have reason to believe his stature has increased as a result of the budget standoff. His polls have crept upward in recent weeks: A recent New York Times survey put his current approval rating at more than 50 percent. An Associated Press poll released over the weekend found that 43 percent of recipients felt Clinton should be reelected next November - while 42 percent felt he did not deserve a second term.

Such numbers show that Clinton still faces a tough reelection fight. But they are a large improvement over the approval pit he found himself after the Republican electoral sweep of last November.

Leading Republicans, meanwhile, are sounding increasingly annoyed over what they few as the president's posturing as a protector of Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs that serve the elderly and low-income. GOP plans don't "cut" these programs, Republicans fume. They just slow the rate of increase a slight bit more than do the Democrat's own proposed changes.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas went so far as to say that Clinton should "stop that garbage he's spewing" about heartless GOP cuts.

White House budget director Alice Rivlin termed "blackmail" the GOP precondition for a resumption of talks: that the president produce figures that balance the budget in seven years under Congressional Budget Office economic assumptions. "We haven't got down to real negotiations at all," she said in a Sunday broadcast interview.

But lower-level budget strategy meetings continued behind the scenes. Congressional Democrats, in particular, met to see if they could agree among themselves on a plan produced by "Blue Dog" Democrat conservatives that would balance the budget while omitting large tax cuts.

Big tax cuts are part of both Clinton's and the GOP leadership's budget proposals. Polls have found lukewarm public support for a tax cut, given the current government deficit, and many experts have called on both sides to abandon tax relief as a means of getting the money needed to make their overall budget targets meet.

Though the budget rhetoric seems more heated than it was during November's government shutdown, the actual effect on the country of Shutdown II will be much less severe. That's because a number of approriations bills have become law in the interim, allocating permanent funding to more federal departments.

Still, an estimated 260,000 federal workers will likely stay home because their jobs haven't yet been funded for the year and are subject to passage of a temporary overall government spending bill. Most federal parks will be closed, absent an agreement, for instance. Passports and visas would be issued only in an emergency. The Departments of Education, Veterans Affairs, and Justice will be among the Cabinet agencies forced to shut for the duration.

Mail delivery won't be affected. Medicare and Medicaid payments, as well as Social Security checks, will continue to be issued. The US deployment to Bosnia will continue - and Congress and the White House themselves will both keep operating.

In short, many of the functions of the federal government that actually touch voters won't actually be affected. That raises the issue of whether voters outside of Washington will consider the continuing budget standoff a serious matter - or just more partisan squabbling.

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