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Budget Debate is Discussed with Norm Ornstein of AEI

January 17, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The President and the Republicans were to have resumed their budget negotiations today, but it didn’t happen. Norman of the American Enterprise Institute, one of our regular budget watchers, is here to explain why. Please do so, Norman. What happened?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: You know, Jim, this is–this whole process is beginning to remind me of “Ground Hog Day,” the movie where the same day is replayed over and over again with variations. And this is another variation, one in which talks which have been on again, off again, on again, off again, were off again before they started. Republicans sat down and made a tactical decision based on their belief over the last 10 days which got triggered in particular by the President’s press conference last week that he was saying in public wonderfully encouraging things about how he was open and he was willing and he was there to do things. And in private, they believed they were going nowhere, and they thought that this was leading them towards the State of the Union message next week where the public image would be a President who was conciliatory and trying to compromise, Republicans who are intransigent, and they weren’t going to play that game at this point.

JIM LEHRER: And, and so what game are they playing?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, they’re now looking towards both, hoping that at some point he will move and they can resume a negotiation that will matter, but also looking at exit strategies. Remember that we’ve got some timetables here that matter. The State of the Union message, the President will be before the nation.

JIM LEHRER: That’s next Tuesday.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: That’s next Tuesday.


NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Less than a week away. The Iowa Caucuses are coming up in about three weeks, and that will take Sen. Dole out of commission for a while, so they’re looking at exit strategies as well, and they want to be able to say he was not willing to negotiate a bipartisan budget so we will do so. At some point we may very well see very quickly Republicans say if they believe that there will be no plan emerging that’s it with the President, and they will turn to much more intensive negotiations directly with those conservative and moderate Democrats in Congress we have been calling the blue dogs.

JIM LEHRER: But let’s take that a next step. Let’s say that they do make a deal with the blue- dog Democrats and they pass it. They don’t have the votes to sustain a veto, do they?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: No, they don’t, and probably–we now know that basically until negotiations with the President break down, those Democrats will not break with him to negotiate directly independently, but they might very well. And let’s say that there are thirty or thirty-five of them who would be willing to cut a deal if that’s the only way to get a deal. If the Republicans can hold together, they might get 250 votes or 255 votes in the House, 55 in the Senate bipartisan, but they would need 290 votes to override a presidential veto, 67 in the Senate. But if they pass a bipartisan budget plan that is a compromise and the President vetoes it, they believe that completely turns the tables in the political dynamic here, and he looks like the intransigent one, where now he looks like a conciliator.

JIM LEHRER: And what do they mean when they say that they are waiting for the President to put something on the table that has bipartisan common ground, and what does the President mean when he says, look, I already have something on the table? That doesn’t add up to those of us who don’t follow this very closely.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: This is certainly the case. Even for those of us who do, it’s hard sometimes to add the numbers up. Basically, some of this has been over the–a debate and fight over the public territory, the agenda, who’s defining that agenda. For a long time, the Republicans believed they had the upper hand here because they’d framed this issue: Do we get a balanced budget plan in seven years using Congressional Budget Office numbers? The President didn’t give them one, and they could put them on the defensive. Then he gave a budget which did so, but with a set of priorities that were so dramatically different from the Republicans that it was not acceptable to them. So they’ve lost that particular agenda. Now they’re trying to move it to an agenda where they can agree on a budget plan somewhere they think in the middle. They’re close in numbers in many case, but what they have is a gap still in policies, in Medicare where, for example, the administration is saying a part of this, of the Republican program, Medical Savings Accounts, where you move away from the current Medicare system, you put a certain sum of money up, and if you don’t spend all that money, you’re–the individual gets some of it back. It’s a market system. Democrats are saying that won’t work; we don’t want it. It’s a substantive battle, but it’s not over a large sum of money but important substance; Medicaid over whether the states will have free rein. They’re not moving closer on those, and they believe–

JIM LEHRER: And they never will, will they?


JIM LEHRER: Aren’t those kind of priority philosophical debates that there is no middle ground on?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There is a middle ground on anything, frankly.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, sure, sure.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And it’s there. Republicans have moved, they believe, they say, towards a position where their dollar figures on Medicare and Medicaid are now exactly the same as those of the moderate conservative Democrats. The President’s dollar figures have stayed exactly the same, or even are lower in terms of savings than they were at the beginning, so they need movement there. And on policy you can always find a way. You can have experiments. You can phase in. You can find a middle ground. The Republicans now don’t believe the administration is serious about moving towards that middle ground and, of course, at the same time, the administration is trying to find a middle ground on tax cuts which is becoming more difficult. And as time passes, one of the difficulties here generally is that the members of the troops, the rank and file on both sides, get restless, and cutting a deal which requires movement away from your original position becomes more difficult.

JIM LEHRER: For both sides.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: For both sides.

JIM LEHRER: The very conservative Republicans–


JIM LEHRER: And the liberal, the very liberal Democrats.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And remember, too, Jim, that on both sides you’ve got real divisions of opinion over the strategy here. There is no unity here on whether you move towards a deal no matter what, or say enough of this, we’ll take it to the election.

JIM LEHRER: On both sides.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: On both sides.

JIM LEHRER: And, in other words, stay tuned.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you, sir.