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CLINTON CALLS GOP PLAN A STEP IN `RIGHT DIRECTION'

President Clinton welcomed the new Republican budget proposal Thursday as a "movement in the right direction." He urged GOP leaders to enter into negotiations and abandon what he called their take-it-or-leave-it stance.

The Republicans on Wednesday put forward a new plan to balance the budget by the year 2002. The GOP package included a scaled-back tax cut and smaller reductions in social programs than they had pushed in last winter's bitter standoff that forced two shutdowns of the federal government."It's good medicine for our nation. And it would prevent America's children from having to swallow the poison pill of mounting federal debt," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., as he opened the panel's consideration of the spending plan.

At a news conference Thursday with Greek President Constantinos Ste-pha-no-pou-los, Clinton said he was encouraged by the GOP proposal but that "we still have significant differences."

He criticized the proposed reductions in education and environmental spending as still too large. He said the new plan continued to put forward unacceptable reductions in Medicaid, the health program for poor people.

"There are a lot of things in there that I don't agree with, but it is a movement in the right direction," he said. "I hope this is the beginning of a process that will end in a negotiated seven-year-balanced budget."

Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee had said they were willing to permit its adoption by the panel Thursday night but planned to seek approval of Clinton's plan.

"Many in the majority appear to have no intention of working with the president," said Sen. James Exon, D-Neb. "Instead we get more of the artful dodge."

The House and Senate budget committees planned to approve like-minded blueprints Thursday for fiscal 1997 that claim to end federal shortfalls by 2002.

The packages would trim taxes and pluck savings from Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and a host of other domestic programs. And though details were sparse, GOP aides said their plans would reduce planned expenditures by $700 billion over the next six years.

"That budget, as written, and as the Republican leadership knows, was dead on announcement," presidential spokesman Mike McCurry said.