Republican congressional leaders and the White House yesterday traded charges of partisanship and obstructionism over the budget, with each side declaring that only it can save Social Security.

Despite the harsh words, the House's four top GOP leaders pledged in a letter to President Clinton to cooperate "to resolve our differences" over spending bills to pay for government operations in the fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.

In response, Clinton's chief of staff, John Podesta, told the Republicans that they should work with the administration "to strengthen Social Security for the 21st century."

In their letter, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) and House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) said GOP efforts were stymied by Democrats, who wish "to advance their political agenda."

"For the first time since 1960, we funded the operations of the federal government without raiding Social Security and without raising taxes," they wrote. "We stand ready to work with you to resolve our differences . . . [but] we are greatly concerned about the efforts of congressional Democrats to obstruct our work in order to advance their political agenda."

Podesta said Clinton, in his 1998 State of the Union address, had challenged Congress to "strengthen Social Security first."

Podesta said the president's budget would have achieved that through 2050, but "Congress has not yet acted on that proposal." Podesta, citing the Congressional Budget Office's findings, said the final GOP spending bills would spend more than $17 million of the Social Security surplus.

"You can continue with this pointless partisanship," he wrote, "or, as the president suggested in his meeting with you, work with us to strengthen Social Security for the 21st century."