Key White House and Capitol Hill Republicans, who have been feuding for weeks over the shape of President Bush's domestic program, sat down yesterday for a closed-door discussion of their differences.
While the president was in South America, Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, played host to the newly reelected House GOP leadership and the ranking Republicans on the House legislative committees.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) called it "a darn good give-and-take session." Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has been arguing publicly with Darman over Gingrich's advocacy of a "new paradigm" reform program, said it was "generally positive, but there were no breakthroughs."
A Sununu aide said he was pleased that the discussion was "99 percent forward-looking, with no regurgitation of the arguments" that set off serious divisions between the House Republicans and the administration during the October budget battle.
Sununu, who presided, asked the Republican legislators to offer their suggestions for topics and themes for the Jan. 29 State of the Union message and the budget Darman will submit on Feb. 3.
The result was a 65-minute discussion, ranging over the whole domestic agenda, but focusing on the shaky state of the economy and the need to be ready to counter expected Democratic policy initiatives in such areas as family leave, several participants said.
Michel and Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) said the administration would have to prod Congress to deal with the savings and loan bailout and the threat of financial problems in the banks. Rep. Willis D. Gradison Jr. (R-Ohio) suggested health issues should be on the agenda but came away believing "the administration is not yet ready to offer any comprehensive proposals in that area."
Michel said he and others asked for White House help in fighting a Democratic proposal for a change in House rules that Republicans say would break the recent budget summit agreement on "scorekeeping" of new spending proposals, by shifting that responsibility from Darman's agency to the Congressional Budget Office.
But mainly, Michel said, "the feeling was that the president should talk about the things the average Joe is thinking about when he gets up in the morning . . . the themes we want to sell to Mr. and Mrs. Average American."
Michel said he hopes there will be more such private discussions paving the way for Sununu and Darman to appear before the House Republican Conference when Congress reconvenes in January.
Both men have been heavily criticized by House Republicans for their role in the budget negotiations, but Gradison said Darman indicated he welcomed suggestions from House Republicans and was ready to meet with them again.