Clinton and Gingrich put on a smile

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In what may prove a short-lived honeymoon, President Bill Clinton and the new Republican masters of Congress yesterday proclaimed their determination to work together and, in particular, to avoid a bidding war of tax cuts that would only drive up the federal deficit.

Opening a White House meeting with Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker, the Senate Majority leader, Bob Dole, and leaders of the Democratic minority, a relaxed Mr Clinton spoke of a "consensus" not to increase the deficit and undermine the economic recoveryin progress. "So on that basis we can look forward to a good Congress."

Afterwards Mr Gingrich was in similar upbeat mood, talking of a "different era" and the "remarkable opportunity" which the Republican victory of 8 November offered the country. In typically truculent style, he accused reporters who wrote of friction between the new Congress and a Democratic White House of deliberately trying to "start a cat-fight".

Even the nastiest exchanges of late seem to have been forgotten, however temporarily. Laughing off the assertion by Mr Gingrich's mother in a television interview that the new Speaker considers First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton "a bitch", the President commented that under similar circumstances, "God knows what they could have got my mother to say".

But such courtesies cannot conceal the true battle that is beginning, between a President fighting for political survival and re-election in 1996, and a Republican Congress determined to advance its conservative agenda and, in the process, consign Mr Clinton to irrelevance and impotence.

Simple human exhaustion, meanwhile, dictated that yesterday's Day Two of Republican rule on the Hill would be a gentler affair than the first, which ended only at 2.30am on Thursday. By then Mr Gingrich and his well-marshalled cohorts had rolled over initial Democratic objections to vote through a raft of rule changes. The most symbolic was to place Congress under the same employment and civil rights laws it had enacted for the rest of the country.

Potentially most far reaching, however, is the requirement that any tax increases must secure a three-fifths, or 60 per cent, margin in the House to become law. For small-government conservative purists, this ensures emphasis will be on spending cuts to balance the budget. But pessimists predict a greater likelihood of unfunded tax cuts, which only increase the deficit, despite Republican promises this week to bring in an extra $450bn (£288bn) of spending cuts - and tax reductions of only $140bn - over the next five years.

The goal is a balanced budget, and committee debate began yesterday on a constitutional amendment to that end, with a target date of 2002. Both House and Senate are likely to pass it, but 38 of the 50 states must also approve before the requirement takeseffect.

On the economy, welfare reform and other key issues, the Gingrich thunder will perforce drown out the White House during these opening days of the 104th Congress. But Mr Clinton has two crucial opportunities to reassert himself, the State of the Union address later this month, and the 1995-96 budget draft he sends to Congress soon after.

He should also have a more effective messenger. Mike McCurry was installed yesterday as the new White House spokesman, replacing the ineffectual Dee Dee Myers. Mr McCurry, 40, has been widely praised for his performance as chief State Department spokesman under Warren Christopher.

The President is hoping his genial competent style can dispel the antagonism between the White House high command and a hostile press corps.