JIM LEHRER:So where are we, Norm?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, we have the, in public, Jim, what we've seen, which is an escalating war of words and flinging of invective on both sides, and we saw Sen. Dole basically look a little worried about this and say, you know, we're not going to settle this in press conferences, in public, we need to find a way to get and sit down and talk. In private, they're trying to move to the point where they can sit down and talk. And the House and Senate were moving massively today, as quickly as they could, to get their reconciliation package, the technical term for the larger share of the budget, resolved between the--
JIM LEHRER: As distinguished from the stopgap spending thing which is designed just to keep the government operating.
MR. ORNSTEIN: Roughly a third of the $1.6 trillion budget is annual appropriations, spending in programs we call discretionary. It's most of what we see in government, except for things that are handled by formulas, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm programs, and the tax side. All of that latter part is handled in a larger bill that's 2/3 of the budget plus taxes that's really the core of the dispute here and of the package. The continuing resolution where we haven't had the appropriations finished on time is being used as a vehicle here. Until we get the overall budget passed, the President is not going to sit down to negotiate. And what we're seeing Republicans hope is, and Sen. Dole also expressed this, that they can pull it together, get it voted on tomorrow in the House of Representatives, tomorrow afternoon in the Senate, and send this larger budget package to the President by the weekend, which he will then veto, we know. But then when there is an actual budget on the table, he can sit down with them to negotiate.
JIM LEHRER: And then what happens? In the meantime, the government stays shut down?
MR. ORNSTEIN: The government stays shut down. Now, presumably, once they sit down to negotiate, and show any sign of progress, then they may agree to get the government back to work while they're actually at the table.
JIM LEHRER: So that's when they might conceivably start saying, okay, the President says, look, I won't agree to seven years, but I might agree to eight and a half or something like that, or--
MR. ORNSTEIN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: That's when they start talking about that sort of thing.
MR. ORNSTEIN: And that's when we can start to put down the potential building blocks for a deal. But one of the dangers here is that as the rhetoric has escalated, each side digs into a position and vilifies the other, narrowing the grounds on which you can agree. For example, the seven years now has become almost sacred, so the ability to compromise at eight is more difficult.
JIM LEHRER: Speaker Gingrich said in that news conference that the Republican members of the House think they have or believe they have a moral obligation to pass a seven-year budget.
MR. ORNSTEIN: You know, it's kind of amusing if you can step aside from this, because they picked the seven years the Speaker had said by intuition, but now it's become "the" bottom line. Now, another place where you could compromise is maybe working with the economic assumptions. But what the Republicans did today was to fling more invective at the President's cooked numbers. So that becomes a little more difficult. But there are a number of areas for resolution once we can get to the table. We're pointing towards early next week. We don't know what is in the reconciliation package. We do know from a few days ago that the House and Senate Republicans, who have great differences, have come to an agreement on the Medicare and Medicaid side. The tax side was very difficult, and they'd overpromised in terms of spending and they're trying to narrow that down. Once we have that on the table, then we'll see where they can go, and we're looking towards an end where--and both sides--much of this of course in public--is negotiating posture to try and get the more advantageous position when eventually you can sit down, but you don't want to push that too far. We're now looking towards where they'll be at the end, which is probably later in December, but trying to reach the point where you can actually look towards late in December.
JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, what is the pressure on both parties to settle this immediate problem, which is to keep the government--is to reopen the government, is there any pressure at all?
MR. ORNSTEIN: There is--the pressure is increasing, because let's face it, the public image is a bunch of adolescents taunting each other in the schoolyard, while the school's burning down. Nobody looks good in this process, and if you can make your opponent look worse, you still don't look good. That's why, of course, we've seen the Speaker say, well, let's open up those agencies where the pressure is greatest, where citizens going in find they can't get their Social Security questions answered because the office is closed, and they blame Congress. They want to take a little of the pressure off, ease the steam valve to let some of that off, and they'd like to get people back to work if they could. Right now, they've each been trapped enough in their rhetoric that they can't give in, and the Republicans will not cave right now in that short- term plan, and the President won't either. So they're looking towards the point where they can both save face by saying now they can go back to work because we're actually sitting down to negotiate.
JIM LEHRER: So that's what we have to wait for.
MR. ORNSTEIN: That's what we're waiting for, and we're waiting for the Godot--the budget--the formal budget for negotiations. And what we're looking for in the meantime is making sure that the war of words doesn't escalate to the point where the--
JIM LEHRER: That gets tainted too, huh?
MR. ORNSTEIN: You can't do it. You either can't sit down, or you can't come to an agreement. If you take too many of the possible areas of compromise off the table, or if you damage your relationship with the other side so much, or if one side gets weak, and the President clearly has had the public relations upper hand here, but if he lets the Republicans get too weak in this process, it's no good because he can't negotiate either, so they're going to try and damp down the rhetoric I would guess in the next couple of days, and then see when they can get a budget through. Now, there's one sort of interesting little irony here that might be pointed out, the line-item veto was on the table early in this Congress. The Republicans promised to pass it through. They got different versions through both Houses. The President wanted it. It hasn't gone anywhere. The more expansive version of the line-item veto, had it gone through, Bill Clinton would have been able to take out all of these obnoxious provisions--
JIM LEHRER: The things he didn't like.
MR. ORNSTEIN: --he didn't like, and we'd have a clean bill, and we'd be moving forward.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. The world is full of "what ifs."
MR. ORNSTEIN: It is, it sure is.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Norm.