This Budget Fight Is All in the Skirmishes

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Politics may be the art of compromise, but when it comes to the budget, these days, that's never as easy as splitting the difference. A Wednesday deadline began to look a little unrealistic Tuesday as White House and congressional negotiators hunkered down to bridge the gaps between them over spending on education, law enforcement and the U.N. While both sides could concede a couple of million here and there to the other's pet causes, the margin for horse trading is considerably diminished by the bipartisan consensus on fiscal discipline.

"In the past, the difference between a $250 million deficit and a $273 million deficit didn't matter," says TIME Washington correspondent John Dickerson. "The two sides would just raid Social Security. But the Republicans have drawn a line in the sand with spending caps, and Clinton has gone along with it." Hence the tortuous negotiations over relatively small amounts of money. Although Republicans appeared to be making concessions to the White House over funding additional police and paying U.N. dues, education is still shaping up as a fight. Although the two sides are only $200 million apart over how much to spend, the dispute is over how to spend it: The GOP wants additional spending to take the form of block grants to the states; the White House insists on federal control. Rather than dig in their heels, the Republicans have tended to sign off on some of Clinton's pet projects but then insert riders that the President may find politically tricky.

"The numbers all go the President's way," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. "He'll sign some of these riders, but he'll get to pick and choose the ones that are most onerous and then decide what to keep. He seems to once again have gauged the political winds more accurately than the Republicans have." Then again, ever since the government shutdown of 1995 brought disaster for the GOP at the polls, budget negotiations have been something of a home-court game for the White House.