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Clinton to Meet on Budget With Congressional Leaders

By Charles Babington and Eric Pianin

After weeks of resisting a face-to-face encounter, congressional leaders agreed Monday to sit down with President Clinton Tuesday afternoon to try to begin settling the budget differences that have left billions of dollars in spending decisions unresolved.

Key congressional Republicans accepted the president’s invitation after he vetoed a foreign aid spending measure and vowed to veto other appropriations bills that fail to meet his priorities. GOP leaders, aware they lack the votes to override such vetoes, finally acknowledged they must negotiate directly with a president whom many in their party distrust.

The top-level talks could point the way to a bipartisan resolution of what has so far been an acrimonious budget process, marked by efforts in both parties to score political points. Until now, GOP leaders have been wary about negotiations with the president, in part because of Clinton’s past successes in extracting concessions on spending programs.

But with Clinton having already vetoed two spending bills -- and threatening several more -- congressional Republicans have apparently come to the conclusion that they need to deal directly with the White House to bring closure to a budget battle that has exposed divisions in their own party and elicited criticism for alleged accounting “gimmicks.”

In accepting the presidential invitation, the Republicans stressed they will consider no deals with Clinton that tap surplus funds generated by Social Security payroll taxes -- even though the Congressional Budget Office says GOP spending plans already have done that.

“We will not agree to a summit that would try to find secret ways to spend the Social Security surplus,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Clinton, too, says he doesn’t want to dip into Social Security funds. But his alternative is based on proposed tax hikes that Congress is unlikely to accept.

In the end, fiscal experts predict, Congress and the White House will settle on a compromise that will rely in part on Social Security surpluses -- but involve enough budgetary gimmicks to obscure the picture. For example, Congress has labeled census expenses and routine military maintenance as “emergency” costs, a designation that keeps them from being counted against spending limits. Ultimately it makes little difference, say authorities on Social Security, because the government for years has used the trust fund’s surpluses to cover other spending needs without affecting program recipients.

“This meeting may be as much for show as anything else,” said Stanley Collender, a budget authority at Fleishman-Hillard consulting group. “Both sides are looking for a little political cover here.”

As they have rushed to finish work on the last of 13 spending bills, Republican lawmakers have substantially narrowed their differences with the administration. In some areas, including defense, veterans health care, space and education, they have approved more money than the president requested.

But the two sides have profound philosophical differences, particularly over education. The administration’s priorities include hiring additional teachers and shrinking classroom sizes, while the Republicans favor block grants that states and local authorities can spend as they see fit.