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Archer Meets Clinton, Says `Common Ground' Sought on Budget

By Clay Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 29, 1996; Page A08

In some of the most important budget battles of the last Congress, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) was conspicuous by his absence.

But in an early, unmistakable signal of his desire to assert the full powers of his office in the 105th Congress, Archer paid a quiet visit to the Oval Office Friday morning for an unusual one-on-one meeting with President Clinton.

A spokesman for the White House described the encounter, which lasted more than an hour, as a "private, informal meeting to discuss upcoming legislative issues." A top administration official said Clinton had responded immediately when Archer suggested the meeting but stressed that the congressman's visit was a "courtesy call" and "not a budget negotiation."

In a telephone interview, Archer said he and Clinton exchanged ideas on tax policy, Medicare, Social Security and other budget matters. He declined to elaborate, saying that he and Clinton had agreed to keep details of the session private.

"We both expressed a desire to find areas of common ground," Archer said, invoking a favorite Clinton phrase. "There was a discussion of these issues, but no attempt to get into specifics and no attempt to reach any final conclusions."

Archer said he sought the meeting because "the people of the country spoke clearly in the last election and what they said was that they wanted us to get things done. The only way that's going to happen is if both parties learn to work together. It is my desire to build a strong working relationship with this president and the people in the executive branch under his direction."

In the last session, Archer frequently ceded negotiating responsibility on key tax issues to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). At critical budget bargaining sessions between the administration and the Congress last spring, the chairman of the powerful tax-writing panel literally wasn't at the table.

House colleagues predict Archer will be a more independent force this term for several reasons: Gingrich's clout has been undermined by allegations of financial misconduct; Republicans have a smaller majority in the House, and a greater proportion of their members are moderates; devotion to the leadership's legislative strategy is not the partisan litmus test for Republicans it was in 1994.

Clint Stretch, director of tax legislative affairs at the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, argues that the Republicans' need to recruit more Democrats this year is sure to bolster Archer's influence. On many issues, "it may not be possible to design a bill that wins the support of every single Republican vote, and the only way to negotiate bills that will bring over enough Democrats is to do it within the committee," Stretch said. "The movement of power back out of the leadership offices and into the committees is inevitable."

Some Democrats on the committee say they were encouraged earlier this year when Archer reached across party lines for a bit of last-minute horse trading with liberal nemesis Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), clearing the way for passage of the Kennedy-Kassebaum health care bill.

Although Archer initially seemed content to play the role of the "good trouper," taking orders from the GOP leadership, "he's got a lot more confidence now," says Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.). "I see him having much more control in the next session."

In the telephone interview, Archer stressed his willingness to be flexible in resolving tax policy issues with the administration. He said that, despite the divisive rhetoric of the November campaign, Republicans and the White House are in general agreement on a host of tax issues. He said both sides favor a $500-per-child tax credit for middle-income families; expanded incentives for participation in tax-favored individual retirement accounts; and additional capital gains tax relief for homeowners.

Archer also signaled support for Clinton campaign proposals to offer new tax breaks for students, despite his misgivings about how such proposals would be implemented. "I think that what we all heard" in the past election, Archer said, "was a broad consensus of support from voters for reducing the cost of getting an education."

He even pledged that Clinton's proposals for blunting the impact of welfare legislation enacted in August would get a fair hearing in his committee. Other GOP lawmakers have denounced Clinton following reports that he would call for spending an additional $13 billion over the next five years to assist some of those who would otherwise be pushed off welfare rolls. Archer said, "I don't think it's helpful to prejudge those things right now."

But Archer indicated he's ready to push the GOP position on other issues, including a broad reduction in tax rates on capital gains from the sale of stock and other investments. Congressional Republicans, he said, "would have great difficulty passing overall tax relief without some kind of reduction in the capital gains tax."

Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin has said the capital gains issue is not a "priority" for the administration, leaving the door open to a rate cut of some kind in a final budget deal.

Archer and Rubin share an aversion to proposals that would increase taxes on corporations to scrape up revenue needed to balance the budget. Still, the idea of squeezing "corporate welfare" has many advocates in both parties and may show up as part of Clinton's budget.

Archer's views on Medicare may pose more of a problem for the White House. In the interview, the chairman insisted that it would be "very difficult" for congressional Republicans to go along with a provision in Clinton's last budget proposal that would extend the life of the Medicare hospital trust fund by simply shifting liability for home health treatment for seniors to another account.

It is unclear whether Clinton will resubmit that proposal as part of the budget he will present Congress in February. Should he do so, Archer said he would attack the provision as a "tax increase on future generations."

Archer also may have used his meeting with the president to drum up support for fundamental tax changes, an issue that has lost momentum following the defeat of "flat tax" crusader Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes in the Republican presidential primaries. Archer hopes to revitalize the issue with hearings in his committee next year. Like Forbes, Archer contends that tax reform could trigger an economic boom. He bills that outcome as the only viable escape from the fiscal burdens America is likely to suffer as the baby boom generation begins to retire.

"It is essential that we get growth if we are going to preserve the entitlement programs," he said.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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