President Bush's apparent decision to sign yet another stopgap spending bill represents his latest reversal in a budget debate that has seen more than a few presidential flip-flops.
Earlier this week, the president declared in political appearances in Texas and Iowa that he would not sign another short-term bill when the current one expires at midnight tonight."Lest there be any doubt, let me make clear to Congress just how serious I am about meeting that Friday deadline," he told a Republican audience in Dallas on Monday. "This Friday, time's up. The American people deserve more than this stopgap government."
But his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said Thursday that Bush had decided to sign such a measure after all, so long as "satisfactory progress" is made by tonight toward a final budget compromise.
"We'll decide at the time (midnight tonight) what satisfactory progress is," Fitzwater added.
A House-Senate conference committee must reconcile vast differences between the House-passed budget, which Bush opposes, and the Senate version, which he supports.
Early Friday, the Senate capped more than 30 hours of debate over two days by passing a bipartisan deficit reduction plan that would raise gasoline taxes 9.5 cents a gallon, hike cigarette and alcohol taxes and increase costs to Medicare beneficiaries.
The Senate package was approved on a 54-46 vote that came at about 1:25 a.m. only after Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine and Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas repeatedly joined forces to squelch several direct challenges to the bipartisan plan.
Utah's Republican Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch voted for the package.
On Tuesday, the House engaged in heated partisan warfare before passing a Democratic-backed bill raising income tax rates on the wealthiest Americans from 28 percent to 33 percent, imposing a 10 percent surtax on those with taxable incomes of more than $1 million a year and eliminating any gasoline tax hike.
Asked why the president had changed his mind on whether to sign another stopgap bill, Fitzwater insisted that he really hadn't.
"The point is, we want to get a budget agreement, we want a budget. And if we've got two bills, we've been in conference, we've worked out something that's reasonable, we're willing to sign a CR to get it," Fitzwater said.
A CR is a "continuing resolution," legislative jargon for a stopgap spending bill.
So far in the deliberations on a budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Bush:
- Abandoned his 1988 "read my lips: no new taxes" campaign pledge and endorsed a package proposing $134 billion in new taxes over five years, including levies on cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline and luxury items like yachts and furs. The plan was rejected by the House.
- Appeared to contradict White House chief of staff John Sununu's declaration in an interview that the administration would not support an increase in income taxes. Bush, at a news conference last week, said he was open to a compromise that would include higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans in exchange for a cut in capital gains taxes.
- Backed away from this formula under pressure from Republican leaders, according to participants at a White House meeting at which Bush renewed his opposition to any increase in income taxes.
- Added to the confusion and mixed signals as he jogged in St. Petersburg, Fla. He responded "read my hips" and pointed to his buttocks when asked by a reporter if he was dropping his support for a lower capital gains tax.
- Suggested late last week that he could support a package to raise the top tax bracket from the current 28 percent to 31 percent if it were accompanied by a decrease in capital gains taxes to 15 percent. But then he said he wouldn't push such a plan because he didn't think it could muster enough votes to pass Congress.
Commenting on the budget proposal, Garn said, "I voted for it for one simple reason: the alternative is too bleak - utter chaos.
"Our budget impass is a humiliating symbol of a national breakdown of political values. If I were to design my own budget, it would cut spending, not raise taxes. But the political reality is that this is the best Congress can do."