The House and Senate talked of conciliation yesterday but remained stalemated over rival balanced-budget plans as they faced another deadline in 10 days for resolving the dispute and passing a critically needed extension of the debt ceiling.
Senate-passed legislation, attached to legislation extending the debt ceiling for a year, sets targets to achieve a balanced budget by fiscal 1991 and requires automatic cuts in most programs to achieve the targets if Congress falls short.
A House-approved alternative would compress the process, requiring major cutbacks this year and achieving balance by fiscal 1990. It also exempts many low-income programs, anticipates bigger cuts from defense and reduces the administration's role in the process.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) brushed aside suggestions that the dispute may be irreconcilable and defended the House changes as aimed mainly at protecting the domestic programs and the poor. "I don't think they the differences are wide at all, to be perfectly truthful," he said.
But he said he saw no reason to meet with Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) on the dispute, and there were no apparent efforts yesterday to resolve key differences.
The only action came as the Senate began considering modifications in its version of the balanced-budget measure and approved without dissent a proposal from Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to allow relaxation of spending constraints during periods of slow growth as well as recession.
Levin's proposal, which was accepted by Senate Republican leaders, would allow Congress to waive automatic cutback requirements when economic growth is 1 percent or less for two consecutive quarters.
The Senate voted earlier to allow a waiver only if the economy is static or shrinking over a two-quarter period. The House plan ties its deficit targets to economic growth rates, requiring little if any cuts during periods of slow growth and recession.
The Senate also reasserted its support for enactment of a minimum tax on corporations to help reduce deficits by calling on the tax-writing committees of both houses to draft such a tax by next April 15.
The House-Senate conference on the budget measure had proposed a drafting deadline of Oct. 1, but Senate backers of the minimum corporate tax argued that a fall deadline would be too late for action before the 99th Congress adjourned next year.
"We're saying put up or shut up," said Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.).
Meanwhile, Congress quietly buried a proposal that the two chambers fought over Friday to extend the debt ceiling by $17 billion, or enough to last through the middle of this week, in order to avoid dipping into the Social Security trust fund to keep the government operating.
The House and Senate passed different versions of the legislation, and the differences could not be resolved in time to meet the Treasury Department's midnight Friday deadline for financing the debt without tapping Social Security and other trust funds.
After the trust funds were tapped, the issue became moot. And the next deadline for passage of a debt-ceiling extension becomes Nov. 14 because that is when the Treasury figures that it will run out of the extra borrowing authority it got from tapping the trust funds.
Treasury Department officials have estimated that the redemption of Social Security investments to help relieve the debt crisis will cost the trust fund $38 million over the next 10 days. But the final version of the debt-ceiling legislation is considered virtually certain to include money to make the fund whole again.