Elections Next U.S. Budget Battlefield

WASHINGTON -- The suspension of budget talks Tuesday makes it likely that the ultimate resolution of the debate that has paralyzed the government for months will come not from negotiations in Washington but from voters in November.

In separate news conferences Tuesday afternoon, President Bill Clinton and Republican congressional leaders both held out hope they could still find a compromise to break the budget impasse and produce a seven-year plan to eliminate the deficit.

But it was clear that neither is ready to cave on basic principles, which is a recipe for an election debate in which the sides lay out sharply competing philosophies and let the people decide which way they want the country to go.

Republicans emphasized Tuesday that their latest plan enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, and instead of confrontation they used the words "common ground'' to explain their objectives.

But Clinton stressed that the differences that remain are now more ideological than numerical.

That means that even if there is some kind of agreement in the weeks ahead, neither side is likely to be satisfied enough to put the issues aside in the fall debate. Instead, they will have to take their arguments to the voters -- and both sides appeared to welcome that outcome.

Given the choice between "a wimpy compromise and an honest debate for a year,'' said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, "I'd rather have an honest debate.''

"As a Democrat, I can't think of a better fundamental over which to contest the election,'' said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Both sides believe they begin the year on solid ground if the elections turn on a debate about the size and scope of government, although a Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that Clinton has gained and Republicans have lost from the budget impasse.

However, the findings were directly contradicted by a CNN/USA Today poll which showed Clinton had lost ground, and Republicans had begun to rebound after weeks of trouble.

Voters already appear exhausted by the budget debate and seem increasingly impatient with the failure to resolve the impasse. But they are likely to be dealing with fallout from the debate all year, and some sense the significance of the stakes.

"It's an extremely important election,'' said Charles Clark, who was attending a political event in New Hampshire on Tuesday. "We've got the whole revolution going on in Congress, a new way of looking at government, and Mr. Clinton is hanging on. I think it's a very important time for us.''