Clinton claims win in budget blame game

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Hundreds of thousands of US government employees were back at work yesterday, after a stop-gap budget compromise between the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress on Sunday, which left the basic conflict unresolved.

Hardly had the House and Senate agreed on a "continuing resolution" to fund government until 15 December than the search was on for winners and losers in the face-off that shut down the federal government for six days, the longest such closure in history.

For Republicans, there was the satisfaction of nailing President Bill Clinton down to a seven-year target date to balance the budget on the basis of figures provided by the Congressional Budget Office, rather than by the White House's office, with its long record of cooking the books.

Mr Clinton, however, claims the Republicans blinked first, by agreeing that any final agreement will contain "adequate funding" to protect the federal health schemes Medicare and Medicaid, the environment and education. The White House says if the agreement does not measure up to these goals, Mr Clinton will simply wield his veto again. If the public continues to blame Congress for the shambles, the prospect will make Republicans shudder.

By extending funding until 15 December, the two sides have given themselves four weeks to thrash out what might be the most momentous advance towards a balanced budget in decades. Half hidden by thename-calling of the last few days is a genuine prospect of a bipartisan understanding that would eliminate a deficit that reached $160bn (pounds 105bn) by the year ending 30 September.

To make that leap, the White House and Congress will have to make concessions in the hard bargaining that will begin after this week's Thanksgiving holiday, once Mr Clinton has received, and vetoed the current Republican bill mapping the route to a balanced budget with $1,000bn of spending cuts over seven years.

To produce a version that finds the President's favour, the Republicans will be forced to scale down a planned $245bn of tax reductions, a risky step for both Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.

For the Speaker, backing down on tax cuts could cost him dear with the ideologically- driven Republicans who are his most devoted followers. Senator Dole, uneasy front-runner in the chase for next year's nomination, must avoid anything that suggests he is not a true believer in the "Republican revolution" set in motion by the party's victory in 1994.

Mr Clinton seems well ahead in the blame game. His spirited defence of Medicare appeals strongly to older Americans, who vote in larger numbers than other age groups. Polls show that by 49 to 27 per cent the public holds Republicans responsible for the impasse, and in a White House match- up, the President leads Mr Dole by 55 per cent to 39 per cent.

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