White House and congressional budget negotiators talked until early this morning, past their self-imposed deadline of yesterday, but recessed apparently still far from agreement on a five-year, $500 billion deficit-reduction package that would save $50 billion in the first year, according to sources familiar with the proceedings.
Despite sequestering themselves at Andrews Air Force Base for four days, planning a fifth today, bargainers found progress painfully slow, the sources said.
Late last night, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) presented Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu with a five-year proposal that moved significantly toward the Republican position in major areas, sources said.
The plan, devised during a daylong caucus of the Democrats' negotiating team, nearly doubled their proposed saving in benefit programs, such as Medicare, from $7.2 billion in the first year to $13.9 billion and to $135.4 billion over five years, but would expand other domestic programs so that the net saving is $100 billion. The Democrats also offered to cut their proposed five-year military spending saving to $200 billion from $260 billion and lower their five-year revenue increase to $130 billion from $202 billion, the sources said.
The administration officials rejected the offer as insufficient, sources said, saying net domestic saving had to total $120 billion.
Earlier, Darman had proposed freezing total spending on domestic discretionary programs for two or three years, sources said.
Throughout the day, the negotiators were described as far apart on virtually every issue facing them: which taxes to raise, how much to cut military spending and how much to cut domestic programs.
"The talks are going nowhere fast," Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady said yesterday on ABC's "Good Morning America." "I'm not heartened by the progress of the talks. It's disappointing."
"It's a slow process, but I'm confident we will get an agreement," countered House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).
An ambitious timetable devised early last month by Bush administration officials and congressional leaders called for an agreement by yesterday.
Another artificial deadline falls tonight, when President Bush addresses a joint meeting of Congress. Bush had planned to make a budget pact a large chunk of his speech, but now is expected to mention it only in passing as an incentive to the negotiators, administration officials said.
The ultimate goal of the earlier timetable was to implement an accord by Oct. 2, the second day of the new fiscal year, to avoid the $105.7 billion across-the-board spending cuts required by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law.
The struggle over the deficit continued as Americans are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the nation's economy. Those worries, evident in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, are not directly linked to Bush, however. The president has gotten a boost in popularity since the Persian Gulf crisis began and is still considered better able to handle the economy and the deficit problem than the Democrats.
Nearly two of three Americans say the country's economy is in decline and nearly half say the economy in their communities is weakening, according to the poll.
In the survey of 1,011 adults nationwide, 64 percent said the national economy is worsening. That is the most pessimistic view since the Post-ABC poll began measuring consumer confidence in March 1981. Only 5 percent said the economy is improving, while 31 percent said it is the same.
In January, just 38 percent of those questioned in a Post-ABC poll said the economy was getting worse.
The latest poll, conducted Sept. 6-9, also found the public decidedly pessimistic about the economy in their local areas. Nearly half -- 48 percent -- of those questioned said the economy in their communities is in decline. In January, only 32 percent of those questioned expressed that view. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Despite those pessimistic views, 53 percent said Bush is doing a good job handling the economy, an improvement from July, when 46 percent expressed a similar view. But 41 percent in the recent poll disapproved, and the rest expressed no opinion.
On a broad range of money matters, the survey suggests that Americans appear more willing to place the country's economic future in the hands of Bush and the Republicans than with Democrats.
By 45 to 34 percent, those interviewed said they think Bush is doing a better job than the Democrats in Congress in reducing the deficit. And 41 percent said the Democrats in Congress are more to blame for the deficit, while 25 percent said Bush.
The president's overall approval rating rebounded following his popular decision to intervene in the gulf, with 75 percent of those questioned saying they approve of the job Bush is doing as president. In July, 65 percent of those questioned had a favorable view of Bush's job performance.
Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.