KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich chose to enter the White House through the back door today, avoiding the media's customary camera location. On their way to meet with the President, they knew they'd be asked about the charges and countercharges still being made by both parties over budget issues, particularly Medicare.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We've got to keep this economy growing and strong. That means we have to balance the budget all right, but we have to do it in the right way. We don't have to wreck Medicare or Medicaid.
KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout his re-election campaign, President Clinton accused the Republicans of trying to balance the federal budget by slashing Medicare. The charge was made in stump speeches and in television ads.
AD SPOKESMAN: The Dole-Gingrich budget would have slashed Medicare $270 billion, cut college scholarships. The President defended our values, protected Medicare.
KWAME HOLMAN: For their part, the Republicans attacked the President's 1993 budget plan.
AD SPOKESMAN: Three years ago, Bill Clinton gave us the largest tax increase in history, including a four-cent-a-gallon increase on gasoline. Bill Clinton said he felt bad about it.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: People in this room are still mad at me at that budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. Well, it might surprise you to know that I think I raised 'em too much too.
KWAME HOLMAN: Now, even after the election, the charges continue. On Sunday talk shows this week, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott still were trading accusations on Medicare and other budget issues.
TIM RUSSERT: (Meet the Press) Medicare, should there be a bipartisan commission to look at Medicare?
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: Not preliminarily. I think we need to hear what the President has to say. I mean, he has--um--you know, very much dealt in slight of hand and demagoguery. In addressing this question, he basically said, oh, not that, not this, we don't have a problem, he basically said, oh, not that, not this, we don't have a problem, or maybe a little fix here. He needs to wake up on this and be honest with the American people about the seriousness of the problem, the threats to the Medicare Trust Fund in the very near future when he--when he comes to, you know, the table here and makes a real proposal, we should take a look at it. And I--I really--I don't like the idea of kicking the ball every time, punting the ball, saying, oh, let a commission do it. We have a responsibility. We can do it ourselves.
LEON PANETTA, White House Chief of Staff: (Face the Nation) Trent Lott and the leadership of the Congress have a responsibility to deal with this issue, just as the President does in a bipartisan fashion. Now, you know, if it's going to be a blame game here, if everybody's going to have to basically posture on these issues, then we're not going to get very far. But if, on the other hand, both sides sit down and confront this issue for the American people. Medicare can be protected, as the President has said, in the short-term with a balanced budget agreement as to the long-term for both Medicare and Social Security, that really ought to be the province of the commission to look at the long-term, but in the short-term and for the short-term protection of the trust fund, there is an obligation, a responsibility on the part of the leadership and the President to work together to protect it.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Capitol Hill this morning, Senator Lott stuck to his belief that it's the President who should show his hand first on the budget and Medicare.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: He needs to be honest to the American people and explain where the problems are and see what he suggests we do about it, and then we'll--we'll go forward from there.
KWAME HOLMAN: And this morning at the White House, President Clinton didn't necessarily disagree.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, under the rules, I have to present a budget, and I'm certainly prepared to present a budget. But in the end, we will still have to reconcile. You know, we don't want to get into that--that--I don't agree with every characterization that was put on our economic program in 1993. I think that's why we're in the shape we're in today. We got that interest rate down, we just went forward, but there's no point in us going back and litigating what we thought of each other's programs that we didn't agree with. We need to focus on how we can reach agreement now. We're in this both together, and we have to peddle it together.
KWAME HOLMAN: Cameras weren't allowed into the meeting between the President and congressional leaders, but immediately afterward, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said Medicare is the key to any budget agreement.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT, Minority Leader: Obviously, Medicare is an important issue in the budget. We've got to beware of it being tied to the tax cut part of the budget, but everybody has recognized a long time ago that you've got to deal with Medicare and Medicaid and a variety of programs to deal with the budget problem in the near and mid-term. The longer-term Medicare problem, undoubtedly, will take a commission at some point, and that commission may be included in the budget.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Lott emerged with House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Speaker Newt Gingrich.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: I thought we had a very positive meeting, uh, looking at how we can solve problems next year, uh--I think there's a real desire on the part of everybody to find a way to spend a year of really working on solutions, getting them passed in a bipartisan manner, and doing the work of each the American people, and I thought we covered a very wide range of topics, uh, and I think that on most of them we agreed that if we're careful and we keep it done in a practical, positive, problem-solving way, that we can probably get a great deal done, that actually puts us in a position, I think, to be able by late next fall to turn to the American people and say we've proven the American system works, and, in fact, the lives of most Americans will be better as a result of it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Only through a bipartisan effort this summer did Congress pass and the President sign health insurance reform, welfare reform, and a minimum wage increase, but there was no long-term budget agreement. If a bipartisan budget agreement is to come this year, the President and the Congress will have to do it without the pressures of an upcoming election.