Budget talks mumbled to a halt again Tuesday, and they aren't expected to start again until the middle of next week. The announcements that talks had stopped isn't particularly encouraging, but the post-session press conferences lacked the smell of brimstone present in previous spins put out by Democrats and Republicans.

It appears that both sides have cleared the hurdle that always must be eliminated before any issue in the federal governing process is resolved: politics. Columnist Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News wrote this week that both sides have made more progress in dealing with the politics of the budget issues than with the substance.

Leubsdorf's observation, however, may mean that if both sides really have gotten past the stormy sessions, shouting, and public name-calling, actual work on the principal issues tax cuts and spending can take first priority. Both sides agree that the budget must be balanced by 2002, both agree that Medicare's growth must be slowed, both agree that some kind of reforms must be made in welfare in many forms, and both sides propose tax cuts accompanying spending cuts.

It is also widely accepted that if the talks were between Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and President Clinton only, a deal already would have been made or one would be imminent. However, the third principal negotiator is Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and he is not he same kind of negotiator as Dole and Clinton. That's a fact of political life in 1996 not likely to change unless Gingrich's partisan constituency within the House changes.

Both sides work against a backdrop of history dominated by a bipartisan willingness to spend more than the nation "makes" in taxes and other revenues collected. Richard Mahoney, an executive in residence at the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis, offers these observations:

- Congress, on average, has spent 18 percent more than it took in during the last 25 years (18 years with Republican presidents and 7 years with Democrats);

- Washington took in $1.258 trillion last year and spent $1.461 trillion;

- To eliminate this year's deficit would require cutting $1 in every $7 from the federal budget; and

- Each living American owes $13,200 on the national debt, yet neither party has put forward a plan to reduce the national debt. (The plans now put forward by both sides would only balance the annual federal budget).

Many of those who will vote in Congress on both sides of the aisle know that millions of Americans have no protection and financial security aside from federal entitlements. It is a matter of conscience for many congressmen to protect those citizens. It is an equally principled battle on the part of others to move the nation away from those entitlements and that kind of role for government.

Leubsdorf observed in his comments that the basis has been laid for a year-long debate about government spending and taxation. The two sides have given themselves until Jan. 27 to reach an agreement. Most Americans want the issue settled for at least this budget year. The last two months of negotiations suggest that Americans should be surprised if an agreement is reached, rather than if one isn't.

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