Budget squabble sparks new US shutdown

Barring miracles, the second shutdown in a month of the US government will begin this morning, after the acrimonious breakdown in negotiations between the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress over how to balance the federal budget in seven years.

No new talks were scheduled yesterday after Republicans had rejected modified proposals from the White House meaning that 280,000 workers from nine cabinet departments and various federal agencies will probably be sent home today for want of a temporary spending bill to keep them functioning. On Saturday, however, the shutdown was exerting its familiar and most visible effect: thousands of tourists found museums and monuments closed.

With more than half of the 13 individual appropriations, or spending, bills for the 1996 budget now approved, the disruption will be smaller than that caused by the previous six-day shutdown in mid-November, when 750,000 government workers were laid off. Judging by the rhetoric, this one could be even harder to resolve.

Despite some massaging of figures, the gap remains large over the two most contentious issues, the size of cuts in the main entitlement programmes like Medicaid and Medicare, and Republican insistence on a tax cut, which Democrats say will primarily help the better-off.

But the main problem is that the negotiators - who left to themselves probably would strike a "split-the-difference" deal - are prisoners of their followers. With the 1996 election looming, no Democratic President would dare abandon the party's vital minority and labour constituencies and sanction excessive cuts in federal health and welfare schemes. For its part, the Republican leadership cannot ignore the young conservative militants in the House, insisting on unqualified surrender by the White House.

Hence the angry words flying along Pennsylvania Avenue, with President Bill Clinton accusing the Republicans of waging war on the poor and Bob Dole, the Senate Majority leader and Mr Clinton's probable opponent next year, accusing the President of "spewing garbage" in his distortions of the facts. But compromise did seem in the air again in the other tussle between White House and Congress, over the surrender of notes of a November 1993 meeting between some Clinton aides and the President's lawyer to the Senate Committee probing Whitewater.

The White House says it will hand over the notes if the Senate specifically endorses the principle of attorney-client confidentiality, a step that would avoid a Watergate-style constitutional struggle in the courts.

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