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MARGARET WARNER: Now, to help us understand what’s going on we’re joined again by Susan Dentzer of “U.S. News & World Report.” Welcome back.
SUSAN DENTZER: Nice to be back, Margaret.
Margaret Warner: All right. What’s this deal that Dole’s talking about that could happen very quickly?
SUSAN DENTZER: This is a very narrow kind of a deal. Essentially, Margaret, what it is, is a way of getting the heat of the situation of the partial shutdown put behind them so they can continue to make progress on the bigger deal, which is to say the actual parameters of the way to get to a balanced budget by 2002. In effect, what’s being discussed now is a way to get the remaining federal government workers who are not at work back to work next week commit to pay them at some point in the future when, in fact, all the appropriations bills are passed, and the budget deal is, in fact, a done deal, and probably in many respects, it’s largely a defensive measure. We’re told that a lot of Congressmen and Senators have been dealing with myriad phone calls from angry federal workers who are upset for obvious reasons about not being able to pay their bills in the coming weeks if this doesn’t get resolved, and there certainly has been a sense that when lawmakers went back to their constituents over the past few weeks, they got an earful from them about this whole question of sidelining all these earnest federal workers at a time where everybody knows eventually they’re going to be paid.
MARGARET WARNER: But if you’re a federal worker and you’re thinking well, I may be able to go back to work next week but I won’t actually get paid next week, is that right?
SUSAN DENTZER: It’s not a happy situation, but it’s better to have at least–have the symbolism of people back on the job, and of course, all of this is moving so quickly, even though the intention that was expressed today is simply to have a symbolic move, where people, both Houses of Congress vote to send people back to work, everybody’s declared essential, and, in fact, it is clear that everybody is ultimately going to be paid, it could, in fact, be that over the next few days we will see that it’s an even larger measure than that, it really is a measure that somehow allows a lot of functions of government also to be fully up and running.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. So let’s turn now to the bigger negotiations over trying to come up with this grant, seven-year balanced budget plan. When you and I talked 10 days ago on this show, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope. Again, there had been a top meeting, a meeting of the top leadership. Everyone came out and said it was very constructive. A day later, it blew up. What happened?
SUSAN DENTZER: In essence, what happened was a rhetorical misstep by Vice President Gore, who after everybody had apparently agreed that they were going to use Congressional Budget Office assumptions and scoring methodology, that is to say labeling of how much things cost, he then said that that was actually not the entirety of the agreement. The White House then had to put out a statement slightly correcting what he had said and indicating that, in fact, there was more agreement here than not, but the Republicans took that as a very critical sign of bad faith yet again on the part, they felt, of the White House and the administration, and frankly used it as an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway, which is get out of town, get out of town under an environment where there would still be pressure on the President and on the White House to continue negotiations. In fact, that’s what they did.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain something to us, because in the intervening 10 days, I gather, it’s been mostly staff meeting and several of the participants at today’s meeting said, well, they’ve actually made some progress on individual areas, Medicare, Medicaid, or welfare. How–what kind of progress can they be making when the principals don’t seem to have settled their policy disputes?
SUSAN DENTZER: Well, in fact, it’s been more than that. There were, there were discussions, very fruitful discussions, about how issues were going to be dealt with. There was an agreement that the big three issues, Medicare, Medicaid, and taxes, would, indeed, be dealt with by the principals and presumably are, even as we speak, being talked about by President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich and, and Senate Majority Leader Dole. So that was an important step, and also this morning, there were discussions involving, among others, Leon Panetta, the chief of staff at the White House, and also a number of key Republicans on budget committees, where they walked out and said that there had been progress made in two particular areas, welfare and food stamps, that some additional savings had been found and agreed to by both sides. So there are some real policy decisions now being reached. The big ones, of course, are yet to come in these big areas, the big three that I mentioned, as well as what the total amount of discretionary spending is going to be, that is to say the spending which is not so-called mandatory, or entitlement spending. All of those are very difficult issues, but the fact that, as I was told today by people on the Republican side, the fact that those discussions went well this morning, that their discussions that took place this afternoon, that there’s the intent to work through the weekend, if, in fact, the need arises to do that, that’s all a very hopeful sign.
MARGARET WARNER: And meanwhile, the moderate Republicans or conservative Democrats have been working on their own alternative. Is there any coalescing around that middle ground?
SUSAN DENTZER: No question about it. It’s been clear from the start that when this deal was eventually struck, it would be a deal that only centrists and moderates would love, because the extremes of both parties were going to be left in the dust and some of their most vociferous demands about the extreme size of the tax cut, for example, among other things. But it’s very clear, and we had a number of freshmen Republicans come back from talks with their constituents just today and yesterday saying, in effect, they were willing to deal in what was purported to have been the crown jewel of the Republican Contract with America, which was the size of this broad tax cut. In fact, all of these things are now on the table, and, in fact, if you look at the proposal that had been unveiled by so-called coalition Democrats, the mainstream moderate to conservative Democrats, it actually splits the difference almost down the middle in terms of savings in many areas. And that seems to be where the momentum is going, as it has been clear all along it would eventually go.
MARGARET WARNER: But there will be some big policy differences they have to decide. I mean, do you block grant Medicaid to the states, for instance?
SUSAN DENTZER: That’s right.
MARGARET WARNER: And you’re saying that’s going to be left to the very top, Clinton, the President, and Gingrich?
SUSAN DENTZER: Absolutely, but it’s also clear that there has been movement on issues like that. For example, on Medicare, where the Republicans wanted to put in place a very tight per beneficiary spending cap, the staff work at the Department of HHS has been looking at how Democrats could come to live with what’s known as a soft cap, a kind of a band, a loser version of what the Republicans are talking about. And the dynamics of the negotiations like this area always that people, in essence, converged to something more along those lines, and the White House is now prepared to talk about some serious ways of doing that. That’s also, as I say, hopeful.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thanks, Susan. That’s all the time we have, but thanks a lot.
SUSAN DENTZER: My pleasure, Margaret.