A combative Republican majority in Congress says it will force President Clinton to accept its budget priorities whether he likes it or not. Publicly, a rueful Clinton says he would like nothing better than a bipartisan compromise, if only the GOP would be a bit more reasonable. Privately, his White House aides gleefully gird for partisan combat.
Washington has seen this movie before.
The mystery is why Republicans would ever want to reel it up again. But as Congress leaves town for its summer recess, that is exactly what they are doing -- approving a massive tax cut that Clinton is certain to veto, and passing spending bills that take direct aim at many of his priorities.
Never mind that Clinton over the past four years has emerged from repeated budget standoffs in the superior political position. This time, Republicans say, things will be different.
"For the first time since we've taken over, we've got him in the box," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in an interview earlier this week.
The Republican strategy, as articulated by DeLay and others, is to borrow a traditionally Democratic refrain and argue that Clinton's plans for more spending -- on a variety of child care, education and other domestic programs -- can be satisfied only by raiding the revenue raised by Social Security taxes. Both Clinton and Republicans have said this money should be dedicated exclusively to the popular retirement program.
In remarkably blunt comments to reporters earlier this week, DeLay acknowledged that Republicans are passing appropriations bills that deliberately spend nearly all of the government's non-Social Security surplus on tax cuts and other items -- leaving Clinton with zero money for his own priorities.
While GOP lawmakers acknowledge that they may eventually have to give Clinton some of the spending he wants, they are betting that the public will blame the president, not Congress, for squandering the money he has insisted be saved to shore up Social Security.
The National Republican Congressional Committee even conducted a poll on the subject, testing whether voters are willing to fund popular domestic programs such as school lunches and nutrition initiatives at the expense of Social Security. According to GOP officials, respondents repeatedly chose Social Security over the domestic programs.
But a variety of independent political analysts, as well as several GOP moderates, say the strategy could be self-defeating. The argument that Clinton's spending plans are a threat to Social Security could be made just as plausibly about the Republican tax cut proposals, as Clinton did yesterday.
The lesson that Republicans seem slow to learn, according to some congressional experts, is that any president, particularly one as adept at political positioning as Clinton, usually has an incalculable advantage over Congress in public confrontations.
The current appropriations landscape is literally cluttered with veto threats: Of the dozen annual spending bills that have begun to move through the legislative process, Clinton's advisers have recommended vetoes for eight of them.
Several GOP actions look like deliberate provocations. Republicans, for instance, have cut the foreign aid that Clinton pledged to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in last year's Clinton-brokered Wye River peace accord. And they have slashed funding for AmeriCorps, a national youth-service program started by Clinton.
Clinton's "ability to go public" means that budget disputes like this are almost always viewed by the electorate on his terms, said Texas A&M political scientist George Edwards, while Congress "does not have a single leader" who can frame the debate as effectively. The mystery, he said, "is how people who make their living being responsive to public opinion can be so unresponsive to it."
But even if Clinton ends up winning the public relations battle over tax and spending issues, it will come at a cost. At the start of this year, he said he wanted to enact legislation ensuring the long-term stability of Medicare and Social Security. While some in the White House continue to hold out hope that there is a possibility of an autumn deal at least on Medicare, some officials acknowledged that reaching accords on long-term spending would be a lot less likely if the two sides are at loggerheads on routine spending bills.
One Democratic strategist who works closely with the White House lamented that the Republican caucus is weaker and more disorganized than even Clinton would prefer it to be. Deal-making, this strategist said, is easier with an opposition party with strong leaders who have an eye toward public opinion. And while the Republican majority may be precarious -- only five seats in the House -- most Republican lawmakers are more likely to be challenged in a primary than in a general election. That means the typical member is more concerned about protecting his or her right flank than embracing centrist compromises.
The confrontational approach has cost the GOP in the past. In 1995, Republicans took the brunt of the blame after a budget impasse led to an unpopular government shutdown. Just in October, Republicans engaged in weeks of blustery rhetoric about the budget, then essentially folded their hands at the end of the session by giving Clinton several of the prominent items he was seeking.
Indeed, what's surprising is how much the tax and spending debates of 1999 resemble those that occurred earlier in the administration. At first blush, things should be different now. Unlike in the early- and mid-1990s, when the debates were under the shadow of huge deficits, the government is now reaping record surpluses. But Washington is still in important respects governed by the politics of austerity.
That is because of the tight spending caps imposed by the 1997 balanced-budget accord. Neither the Clinton White House nor congressional Republicans wish to take the blame for breaking these caps. Privately, however, budget writers in the administration and on Capitol Hill acknowledge that coming to agreement on the 13 annual appropriations bills this autumn will be virtually impossible.
From the start of this year, the Republican strategy has been to get the spending bills done as early as possible -- in contrast to last year, when they did not even come close to making the Oct. 1 deadline for the start of the fiscal year. And new House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has done a better job prodding the House to action -- he has passed 11 out of 13 annual spending bills, and held off on one of them out of respect for Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), whose father just died.
But the GOP's appropriations process is faltering. In passing some bills, Republicans resorted to budget gimmicks, such as declaring $4.5 billion for the census as "emergency" spending, allowing the spending caps to be waived. In addition, $7 billion for the emergency agriculture legislation will have to be paid for out of the surplus. And Republicans have yet to act on what may be the most controversial bill -- the one that funds the Labor and Health and Human Services departments. A preliminary House version of the bill is $18.2 billion below Clinton's request, a level that would require a 32 percent across-the-board cut in programs.
Republicans say Clinton is himself guilty of gimmickry and complain that he has refused to engage with Congress on tax and spending issues. "He's once again trying to campaign on issues rather than solutions," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).
But what's unclear is how Republicans expect their confrontation strategy will play out once Congress returns to town next month. Some GOP lawmakers hope that the pain of impending spending cuts may give Clinton the incentive he needs to seek a compromise in which he would give them at least a significant part of their tax cuts.
"My thinking is there's going to have to be an accommodation between the Congress and the president on some key appropriations bills, as well as the tax bill," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "They're obviously related."
Staff writer Eric Pianin contributed to this report.