Time stands still during US budget deadlock

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The Independent Online

New York

As a large part of the United States government has sputtered to a halt this week, thanks to the continuing budget stand-off in Washington, so too has the infamous national debt clock above Times Square in Manhattan.

Installed six years ago by the late New York real estate developer, Seymour Durst, to dramatise America's overspending habit, the digital clock, composed of 350 high-wattage bulbs, is usually a blur of accumulating numbers as $10,000 a second is added to the total. Yesterday the count stayed frozen at $4,985,567,071,200.

"We shut it off, because the government has closed down," explained the late developer's son, Douglas Durst. "Theoretically, the debt has stopped growing, even though the interest on the debt has not stopped."

Roughly half of the federal government's employees, about 800,000 workers, have been put on indefinite leave and it is unclear whether they will be paid for the lost days. Meanwhile, government facilities ranging from passport offices to the national parks remain closed. Even surfers of the Internet are affected: all government "home pages" have been abandoned.

How long the debt clock will stay stopped is anyone's guess. No further meetings were scheduled between the Republican leadership in Congress and President Bill Clinton to try to resolve their differences on a new budget. Newt Gingrich, leader of the House of Representatives, conceded yesterday that talks between the two sides on Monday and Tuesday had made little progress. "I don't think we're an inch closer," he said. His Democratic counterpart, Dick Gephardt, concurred: "It looks like this is going to be a pretty long siege."

While public reaction to the crisis is overwhelmingly one of frustration with politicians in general, President Clinton seems for now to be suffering the least damage, and may even be bolstering his overall position by refusing to accede to Republican demands for a programme to balance the budget within seven years by deep cuts in popular medical and social service programmes.

According to a USA Today/CNN poll, 49 per cent of Americans are blaming the Republican Congress for the imbroglio, with only 26 per cent putting the primary blame on Mr Clinton, who favours a less savage approach to spending cuts, and balancing the budget over 10 years.

News Analysis, page 19