Congressional leaders made their first trip to the White House since the election last week and came away optimistic that an agreement could be reached on a balanced-budget plan early next year.
Any such spending blueprint aiming to eliminate the federal deficit would almost certainly require a significant slowing of the growth of Medicare.
There also seemed to be new momentum last week for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. The amendment fell one vote short of passage in the Senate in February 1995 after passing the House by a vote of 300-132 in January of that year.
Before meeting with congressional leaders, President Clinton said he would not oppose a balanced-budget amendment as long as it allowed enough flexibility to address economic downturns. Clinton's opposition to the amendment was a significant factor in its defeat in the Senate.
But later in the week, White House staff said Clinton had not changed his position against the amendment.
Senate Republican leaders say that regardless of the president's stance, the results of the Nov. 5 elections, which gave the Republicans two additional seats for a 55-45 majority, mean there are enough votes to pass the amendment. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said it was likely that the amendment will be brought to a vote early next year.
Last year, provider groups strongly opposed the measure.
At the White House, leaders of the two parties also discussed Medicare reform. According to White House spokesman Mike McCurry, there was little enthusiasm for Clinton's plan to appoint a commission to address the long-term solvency of the Medicare system (See related story, p. 29). However, McCurry did not rule out such a panel.
Republicans again stressed that they would wait for the president to make the first move on Medicare reform as part of his budget rather than taking the lead with their own Medicare reform plan as they did last year.