Republican leaders cancelled a round of talks with President Bill Clinton yesterday as the partial shutdown of the government precipitated by disagreement between Congress and White House on the 1996 budget reached its 20th day.
The Republicans called off the planned session in order to regroup and plan their next moves, Republican sources in Congress said. But privately both sides were saying yesterday that they saw little sign of an early settlement. The increased tetchiness between the White House and Congress in the last two days has not helped, making it less likely that the Republicans in the House of Representatives will drop their precondition for reopening the government: a detailed deal with the White House on the means to reach a balanced budget by 2002.
A closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday showed that more than twice as many favoured keeping the government shut as reopening it. This is not a position, however, which enjoys much popular support and President Clinton has been quick to take advantage of a split that has yawned this week between Republicans in the Senate and the House.
The Senate, led by Bob Dole the Republican majority leader, voted on Tuesday night to reopen government and pay the 760,000 government employees who have gone without their wages since 16 December. On Wednesday morning the House voted against. President Clinton began his offensive gently, complimenting the Senate and wishing the House would follow suit. Then, as if smelling blood, he denounced the "unnatural disaster" the Republicans, driven by "a cynical political strategy", had brought upon the nation. Whereupon Richard Armey, the leader of the Republican majority in the House, replied that the President was as much to blame as anybody.
Senator Dole and the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, both of whom have been attending the budget talks this week, have yet to respond to the President's attack. In both cases with good reason. As Mr Clinton's likely rival in this year's presidential election, Senator Dole is keeping an eye on the polls and finding that the majority of Americans want the shutdown to end. But since it was his move in the Senate on Tuesday that exposed the rift between moderates and zealots in the Republican camp he has chosen to keep quiet, for fear of deepening the divisions within the party and providing his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination with fresh ammunition.
As for Mr Gingrich, he has so far lived up to a New Year resolution to be more judicious in his public statements. His refusal to rise to the presidential bait has been taken by some commentators to suggest that he has become a hostage of the hardliners in his own party whom he led to victory in the November 1994 elections.
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