Frustrated by the slow pace of budget negotiations, President Bush has asked congressional leaders to the White House for daily meetings this week aimed at speeding progress toward an agreement to cut the federal budget deficit.
Beginning today, Bush is to meet each morning with Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).
According to a senior official, the administration is "frustrated that things are going so slowly" and wanted to prod the talks -- now in their 11th week -- as well as build a public case that Bush "is walking every extra mile" to address the deficit.
"This is a period of very intense negotiations," said presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. "The president wants to give it a major push." Bush and his advisers "felt the leadership should get together and do some hard bargaining to see if we can't get it resolved."
The full budget summit negotiating group is expected to meet this week as well, although sessions had not been scheduled by late yesterday and Foley said he did not expect the White House meetings to produce any decisions. "We're going to get reports back and forth and exchange ideas and approaches," he said. "We don't intend to make agreements outside the summit group."
Democratic participants in the talks said they hoped the White House sessions will hasten an accord nonetheless. "The talks are intensifying," a Democratic leadership aide said.
One week after House Republicans called Mitchell "a consistent roadblock" in the talks and Bush blamed Democrats for the rising federal budget deficit, Democratic negotiators said they hope today's meeting at the White House will produce agreement on a "code of conduct" for the negotiations. A draft prepared yesterday called for ending public partisan attacks and leaks of proceedings in the nominally private talks.
Democratic negotiators also said they expected to discuss today how much savings could be achieved in the various components of the budget, including both military and domestic spending, and new tax revenue.
Fitzwater said the administration continued to hope for an agreement by the time lawmakers leave in early August for a month-long recess. But lawmakers said they doubted that was possible.
"What we're likely to find this week is that we've got some tough disagreements," Gephardt said. "This is going to be hard to pull together."
"It's still at the miracle stage," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.). "But with some pushing by the president, miracles can happen."
If an agreement cannot be enacted before the recess, lawmakers would rather not reach a broad outline of an accord for fear that this would invite attacks over the congressional break by affected interests. "A month of heavy lobbying would make it hard," Panetta said.
While it is unlikely that lawmakers will delay their recess to work toward a budget agreement, Democratic negotiators have discussed the possibility of returning early to resume their talks.
Last week, the administration raised its estimate of the fiscal 1991 deficit to $168.8 billion.