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GOP Searches for Fail-Safe Strategy As Budget Amendment Nears Defeat

By Eric Pianin and Helen Dewar
The Washington Post

With their drive for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in shambles, Republicans Thursday searched for a fail-safe strategy to pass a balanced budget plan and put their mark on this year's legislative agenda.

President Clinton, who worked to kill the amendment, urged GOP leaders to "hunker down" and work with his administration to develop a balanced budget and tax cut deal before Thanksgiving. "We have to go beyond the constitutional debate to get to the specifics," Clinton said in a speech to the Business Council." His advice to Republican leaders, in short, was: "Get the job done this year."

But with the balanced budget amendment headed for an almost certain defeat next week - one vote shy of the two-thirds Senate majority needed - Republicans are torn. Should they launch the politically dangerous task of drafting their own plan to balance the budget by 2002, including unpopular cuts and changes in Medicare? Or should they hang back until they are assured the White House and Democrats are willing to share the risk equally?

"Everyone expects us to always put our hands on the chopping block while all they ever do is play politics," complained Richard E. May, Republican chief of staff of the House Budget Committee.

Chastened by the voter backlash to their 1995 budget tactics, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., said, "I don't think you'll see the Republicans want to lead with their chin this time and pass a budget only to have it vetoed."

During the first two months of the 105th Congress, Republicans in both houses have suffered losses on high-profile GOP initiatives - including term limits in the House - while dealing successfully with priorities associated with Democrats. "There is some concern about the message," said a Republican congressional aide.

The only major measure to have cleared both houses is Clinton's proposal for early release of international family planning funds frozen last year as part of a deal to fund the government. Many Republicans opposed the measure because it did not include restrictions on funding for organizations that perform or promote abortions.

Second in line for final action is a bill, passed by the House and the Senate, to reinstate expired taxes on airline tickets - which has little in common with Republican demands for tax cuts.

Even though the early months of new congresses are often slow-moving, this year's start suffers by contrast with the fast start of the 104th Congress. A year ago, the House had already passed much of the GOP's "Contract with America," including a balanced budget amendment, line-item veto legislation, a package of anti-crime bills and a moratorium on issuance of federal regulations.