Partisanship threatenshistoric budget deal

Partisan wrangling over details in the agreement between President Clinton and Republican leaders to eliminate the budget deficit by 2002 is slowing momentum behind the deal. Most Democrats and Republicans are, in fact, adhering to post-election promises to back a budget resolution that appeals to both parties’ priorities and interests. But a few contentious legislators from both sides are stirring up opposition to the plan. Some say they will actually work toward blocking congressional approval of the bill unless their demands are met.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the plan. In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Wellstone criticized the bill’s proposed tax cuts for the middle- and upper-classes. He warned legislators that the cuts, combined with likely limits on spending for social services, will exacerbate the growing income gap between the rich and poor. Wellstone claimed the government may have to sacrifice education programs for children from low- and middle-income families to make up for lost tax revenue. He also suggested that poverty-stricken children could lose their access to health and medical services.
Health benefits and education programs for poor children, however, are not on the chopping block. In fact, a steady increase in funding for nutrition programs and Head Start — a preschool program for poor children — is forecast under the plan. In holding up a budget agreement, Wellstone may actually be endangering poor kids’ long-term access to health and education services. A five-year balanced budget plan may be the most effective way to quell conservative demands for cuts in spending for such programs in the future.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, is heading a small cluster of Republicans who insist the proposal is too generous with social programs and doesn’t call for deep enough tax cuts. Gramm cautioned lawmakers that modest cuts in Medicare and Social Security won’t go far enough in limiting tax burdens citizens will face in the next century. Several Republicans are also opposing the plan’s restoration of benefits to legal immigrants, which were eliminated in last year’s welfare reform bill.
It took two years of political combat and a couple of government shutdowns for Clinton and Republican leaders to reach this compromise. Neither party can sincerely claim to have gotten the short end of the deal. Democrat’s demands for an increase in education spending were met. And many of their most valued social programs, especially Medicare and Social Security, were largely protected. Republicans, for their part, finally received long-sought income, capital gains and inheritance tax cuts that should endear them to their constituencies.
Certainly, voting for specific details to pin down the five-year outline requires earnest deliberation. The discussions should continue long after the initial decisions are made, and revisions are inevitable. But for now, the uncompromising partisans lining up behind Wellstone and Gramm can’t be permitted to tank this historically unique opportunity to pass a balanced budget agreement that accommodates many of both parties’ top priorities.