When Democrats shot down the Bush administration's deficit-reduction plan last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) looked for a way to move the talks forward while his Senate counterpart, Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), seemed to look for the door.
Panetta, a master of the vagaries of the arcane budget process who favors bipartisan approaches, and Sasser, a sharp partisan who is more interested in the broad politics of the budget than the fine details, have become the good cop and the bad cop of the Democratic team in budget talks with Bush administration officials.
It is less a calculated strategy than a reflection of the instincts and backgrounds of the two Budget Committee chairmen and, to some extent, the election year imperatives of their two chambers.
The two men also personify the confusion among the Democrats over how to proceed in the talks. "It's a dispute over tactics," a Democratic leadership aide said. "It's a deep division, but not an insurmountable one."
Yesterday's scheduled talks were canceled as Democratic leaders sought to devise a unified approach. President Bush is to meet with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders at the White House today in hopes of getting things moving again.
Both Panetta and Sasser have been critical of Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman's budget proposal, which essentially was the same plan Bush submitted in January with new spending cuts more heavily tilted toward domestic spending than defense and no new taxes.
The two chairmen also agree that the talks should produce a package cutting the deficit by as much as $600 billion over five years. But they disagree over the best way to get there.
Sasser said the talks would not be productive until the administration comes up with another proposal. Last week's offer "simply does not give us any foundation on which to build," he said. "We have to be willing to terminate the negotiations at some juncture if they're not serious."
Panetta, though, said the Darman proposal can serve as the basis for bargaining. "It's a starting point," he said. "We are in a process of negotiations and that requires give and take from both sides. I don't think we can sit there and continually wait for the administration to offer proposal after proposal."
The two chairmen come to their divergent approaches naturally.
Sasser relishes partisan struggle. He entered politics under the tutelage of the legendary Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), a colorful populist, and was Tennessee state party chairman from 1973 to 1976.
Panetta, conversely, seems uncomfortable with partisanship. He began his political career as a Republican, changing parties in 1971 after being fired from the Nixon administration for his aggressiveness as a civil rights official. His role model is the late Earl Warren, the liberal Republican who was governor of California and later chief justice of the United States.
The budget has been the leitmotif of Panetta's congressional career, while Sasser did not really focus on it until taking over the chairmanship last year. Panetta appreciates details of the budget process that make Sasser's eyes glaze over. What really gets the Tennessean's blood moving is the opportunity to score political points with characteristically colorful analogies that seem to make Panetta ill at ease.
Commenting on the Darman proposal last week, for instance, Panetta, with characteristic circumspection, called it "inadequate in terms of responding to the problem we're facing." Sasser launched a series of homespun rhetorical assaults: "Simply putting a new suit on that old corpse isn't going to revive it. . . . It's like building a room on a house that's already collapsed."
Although the tactical dispute is not strictly a House-Senate rift -- House Democrats have voiced support for Sasser at strategy meetings, according to participants -- election year pressures make the Senate more sensitive to the possibility of a GOP trap on taxes.
Senate Democrats hold a 55-to-45 majority and some of their incumbents face strong challenges from Republican candidates this fall. Few feel more strongly on the issue than Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), a former state party chairman who once sought to run the national party. Mitchell's Senate power base is built on his achievement of returning the Senate to Democratic hands as chairman of the party's campaign committee in 1986.
Over lunch last Thursday in a meeting room belonging to House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Mitchell delivered a strong rejoinder to Panetta's call for bargaining based on Darman's offer, participants said.
Pulling a note card from his jacket, Mitchell read an excerpt from Bush's State of the Union address: "That budget brings federal spending under control, it meets the Gramm-Rudman target, brings that deficit down further and balances the budget by 1993 -- with no new taxes."
"One sentence, five assertions, each of them wholly incorrect," participants recalled Mitchell saying.
The Democratic disarray has left Republicans uncertain about what will happen next. "We don't understand what the Democrats expect and we don't understand why we're not proceeding with negotiations," Sen. Pete V. Domenici (N.M.), the Senate Budget Committee's ranking GOP member, said yesterday after a White House strategy session. "They haven't given us an inkling of whether or not we're going to proceed. . . . We are there tuning up our fiddles while the economy smolders."