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AN EXERCISE IN FUTILITY? ’97 BUDGET TO BE UNVEILED

SHARE AN EXERCISE IN FUTILITY? ’97 BUDGET TO BE UNVEILED

President Clinton's budget for 1997 - at least a bare bones version - will be formally unveiled on Monday, but the president and the country could certainly be excused for wondering, "Why bother?"

A president's budget is often declared dead on arrival by an opposition Congress intent on setting its own spending priorities, but Clinton's new budget seems to be the ultimate exercise in futility.While he is presenting a budget for the 1997 fiscal year, he and the Republican Congress are still locked in stalemated talks over the 1996 spending plan, even though the current budget year is one-third gone.

"In a sense, the 1996 budget process is being lapped by 1997. We have the runners for the previous race still on the track and the gun is going off for the new race," said Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "This is undoubtedly going to cause a tremendous amount of confusion."

There's a simple answer why the president is producing a new budget: He is required by law to submit a spending plan to Congress by the first Monday in February that will cover the fiscal year starting the next Oct. 1.

The administration said it will meet the minimal requirements with a 15- to 20-page document that will sketch in broad outline what his spending recommendations are. The actual budget with line-by-line details won't be ready until March 18.

Administration officials say there won't be any surprises. Monday's budget will track the president's last offer made in early January in the marathon budget negotiations.

As part of a compromise to end a 21-day government shutdown, Clinton agreed to meet the Republican demand to produce a budget that would be in balance by the year 2002 using economic assumptions from the Congressional Budget Office.

Clinton released details of his offer on Jan. 18. It would trim growth in Medicare, the big health care program for the elderly, by $124 billion over the next seven years, compared to $168 billion in the GOP plan.

It would produce $59 billion in savings in Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor, compared to $85 billion in the GOP plan.