Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) put chances of getting agreement on a deficit-reducing budget at no better than 50-50 yesterday as House and Senate negotiators resumed work on a testy, dour note.
As expected, House budget conferees rejected a Senate proposal that would have raised taxes and frozen Social Security benefits, and said they will offer a proposal today that goes partway toward meeting Senate demands for deeper cuts in domestic nonpoverty programs.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) indicated that the cuts will amount to about $3 billion for next year, although budget aides said the figure probably will be higher. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) has called for at least $6 billion to $8 billion in cuts, and Dole dismissed a compromise of $3 billion as "liberal arithmetic." A White House official said it appeared that the House offer would fall considerably short of savings needed for a compromise.
Despite formal resumption of the negotiations, tensions were high, and expectations for a compromise, at least among senators, were low.
Senators of both parties remained critical of a White House-blessed budget "framework" under which Social Security savings were abandoned; House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) bristled at their complaints, warning them against making "disparaging" remarks.
Under current circumstances, Domenici said it is unlikely that the deficit, which White House and congressional leaders had been hoping to cut below $100 billion within three years, would get below $165 billion to $180 billion.
Dole, who on Friday had been sharply critical of White House handling of the budget dispute, muted his criticism yesterday, apparently in deference to the president's illness. But he did not back off his charge that the framework amounts to "surrendering to deficits."
In remarks on Capitol Hill and at a luncheon with Washington Post editors and reporters, Dole spoke of "fundamental differences" between the White House and Senate Republicans on budget issues but denied that the anger was directed at the president. "We're not mad at anyone; we're mad at the deficits," he said.
He reiterated skepticism about enacting the president's tax overhaul plan this year, citing time constraints and the concern among many lawmakers that the plan would reduce revenue and thereby increase deficits. "I'm willing to go along with it, but it's hard to get the votes," he said.
On the budget, he said any agreement would have to approach $50 billion in "real money" savings next year to win Senate approval. House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) said the House offer will have at least $56 billion in first-year savings, with "very substantial" spending cutbacks in future years. However, senators have complained that many of the claimed House savings are bookkeeping gimmicks that will not yield real savings.