Clinton and Gingrich get back to political basics

RUPERT CORNWELL

Nashua, New Hampshire

A Democratic President and a Republican Speaker yesterday held an unprecedented joint political meeting that produced much agreement on ultimate goals but underlined the deep party rifts on a host of issues, ranging from health-care cuts and a balanced budget to the future of the UN and America's foreign aid programme.

At a hastily arranged session at an old people's home in Claremont, New Hampshire, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich spent an hour answering questions, in which mutual compliments far outweighed the occasional courteous barb. It was "fabulous", Mr Gingrich said as he thanked the President for the invitation. Mr Clinton was similarly effusive: "This is getting back to basics, the way politics should be."

And indeed the remarkable encounter seemed to propel the normally sharp- tongued Speaker and an increasingly defensive President into uncharted waters of civility - at least in public.

The session was notably devoid of partisanship, but broke little new policy ground, apart from a handshake deal for a joint commission to look into lobbying and campaign finance.

Mr Clinton is embarking on a tough re-election campaign, while the leader of the Republican revolution on Capitol Hill, officially not a candidate for the White House, is behaving exactly like one in the state which holds the first primary next February.

"Showdown," headlined the New Hampshire Sunday News beforehand, But Mr Gingrich disagreed: "We're going to chat." And those who expected blood were to be disappointed. The main differences indeed were well known - most notably on Republican plans to balance the budget in seven years, largely by sweeping cuts in federal health-care programmes.

"There has to be change, but the proposed Republican cuts are too severe," Mr Clinton said, arguing for smaller cuts in Medicare, the government scheme for old and disabled people, and smaller tax cuts than the $350bn plan pressed by Mr Gingrich. The Speaker argued for a step-by-step approach to health-care reform, insisting that the compendious Clinton plan which failed in 1994 had "collapsed under its own weight".

Some of the more spirited exchanges came on foreign affairs. Downplaying the role of the United Nations, Mr Gingrich credited the last half-century of peace to the US and Nato, not to the UN. "If You gave me a choice between three UN secretary generals and one (US) aircraft carrier to keep the peace, I know which I'd choose."

He called for a complete overhaul of the UN operation in Bosnia, calling its command and control structure "a nightmare". But the kind words predominated. Mr Gingrich vowed to give Mr Clinton the "line item veto" sought by the President but currently bogged down in Congress. He also praised Mr Clinton's performance in the Haiti crisis.

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