President Clinton and top administration officials are hunting up votes for his deficit-reduction tax bill even before Senate-House negotiators draft a compromise package.
Clinton touted the measure during a trip to the Capitol on Thursday, just hours after lawmakers from the two chambers held their first meeting - a ritualistic session that featured speeches for television cameras."The No. 1 thing is we have got to produce a growing economy and the deficit-reduction package is absolutely critical to that," Clinton told reporters.
Democrats say the bill would lead the way to lowering the deficit by $500 billion over the next five years by raising taxes on the wealthy, business, energy users and some Social Security beneficiaries, and trimming spending on Medicare, defense and other programs.
With Republicans marching in lockstep against the proposal for what they say are harmful new taxes, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen was also on Capitol Hill, trying to round up support from conservative Democrats.
"He said we have to pass this package," said Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, a leader of the House's conservative Democrats.
And administration officials were working out of a command center in the Old Executive Office Building, monitoring congressional negotiations and "making sure that the president's message gets out every day," according to White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.
The original House and Senate bills are virtually identical on at least 85 percent of the issues. Yet with each chamber approving its version of the legislation earlier this year with paper-thin margins, Democrats have little room for error if they want to send the final bill to Clinton by early August.
Nonetheless, Democrats are fighting among themselves over several key disagreements. Among them:
- Whether to tax gasoline, broader sources of power or abandon an energy levy altogether.
- How deeply to cut Medicare.
- How generous tax breaks should be for the working poor and some businesses and investors.
"I have no illusions about the difficulty of the job ahead of us," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill.
Republicans tried to score points by accusing Clinton of delaying the required release of a summertime budget report because, they said, it would show this year's federal deficit has shrunk by itself. Such figures could cause support for the deficit-reduction bill to melt away, they said.
"It may very well be that if we had those numbers, we might tax the American people less," said Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
But the White House fired back, chastising Republicans for challenging the need for further deficit cuts. "Republicans have not only lost their direction, but their spine," said budget chief Leon Panetta.