President Bush and Democratic budget negotiators yesterday agreed during a White House meeting to cool the partisan rhetoric in hopes of speeding stalled talks toward an agreement to cut the federal budget deficit.
"There's a general consensus that we need to concentrate on reducing the partisan comments," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). "We hope there can be a kind of muting of that kind of comment, criticism, whatever, while we watch the major negotiating group proceed."
Meeting yesterday afternoon in the Capitol, the bargaining group agreed to try to trade deficit-reduction plans in the next few days, according to participants.
"The wish has been expressed that proposals be put on the table before the week is out," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.). Sasser said there is a "general consensus" that the plans would be designed to cut $50 billion from the fiscal 1991 deficit, projected by the Bush administration to be $168.8 billion.
Foley and other congressional leaders met with Bush yesterday morning in the first of daily White House sessions aimed at adding a sense of urgency to the budget talks, now in their 11th week.
Lawmakers are growing increasingly impatient with lack of progress. "There still has never been a vote or an affirmation of anything," said Rep. Bill Frenzel (Minn.), the House Budget Committee's ranking GOP member. "We are still laboring."
The talks have faltered lately amid partisan sniping. Last week, House Republicans attacked Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as a "consistent roadblock" in the talks and Bush blamed Democrats for the deficit.
But after yesterday's White House meeting, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater promised that Bush would "be very gentle . . . . They're working in a spirit of harmony and compromise."
Indeed, Bush later went out of his way to praise Democratic leaders. "I salute those Democrats in the leadership who are now working with me," he told a Pennsylvania GOP fund-raising luncheon in Philadelphia.
In New York City last night, Bush complimented House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) for his handling of the "this enormously diverse group" of negotiators.
"We all know that the Democrats have a long track record on spending," Bush told a GOP fund-raising dinner. "But if the Berlin Wall can come down in the same year America goes nuts over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who knows what can happen next?"
But the president did not entirely retreat from denouncing Democrats, accusing the opposition party of perpetuating "fiscal follies." Democrats, he said, must curb their appetite to build "ever-larger, ineffective centralized bureaucracies and then adding to the deficit to pay for them."
"Political discourse at this point is not helpful," Gephardt said after hearing Bush's remarks.
Bush is to meet again this morning with Foley, Gephardt, Mitchell, Senate GOP leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.), House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, budget director Richard G. Darman and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.
Foley stressed that the White House meetings would not produce decisions. "We are not creating a super-summit that makes decisions," he said. "We're reviewing the actions that will be made in the decision-making group . . . . We might be helpful and we hope we can be helpful in moving the talks forward."
"The larger group is doing the heavy lifting in terms of going through specific proposals and reaching conclusions about various options," Fitzwater said. "Then the leadership group basically reviews the work done by the large group and gives them any instructions they might have for the next day's work." Daily White House meetings are scheduled only through the end of the week but "presumably it will go further if it needs to," Fitzwater said.