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In Search Of The Real Deal

Markup sessions are postponed, while budget negotiators try to figure out what they agreed on

By Bob Franken and Ann Curley/CNN

WASHINGTON (May 15) -- House and Senate leaders have postponed this afternoon's so-called "markup" sessions to finalize the balanced budget deal, as negotiators try to settle disagreements on tax cuts and other issues.

Only in Washington would they still be struggling to figure out just what they agreed to, two weeks after announcing a budget agreement.

On May 2, Republicans in the Capitol and President Bill Clinton in Baltimore held competing events to claim they had reached agreement on balancing the budget by the year 2002.

There was just one problem. What they agreed to wasn't a conclusive deal, but rather a framework, with details to be filled in later. Negotiators have been trying to finish the job and White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and his team met for hours with congressional leaders.

Could the deal that was never final unravel?

"There's always that danger," Sen. Pete Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who heads the Senate Budget Committee, said today. Domenici said there are still some differences, but compared to earlier this week, "they are small in number and not the kinds of things I am going to reveal."

But what are some of the holdups? For starters, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer refuses to be pinned down on tax cuts for college education, and the specifics of a capital gains cut.

Meanwhile, negotiators are working on a lengthy side letter that will set out various "understandings" on other troublesome issues, like increases in Medicare premiums and the rate of deficit reduction.

All the while, the heckling continues from both sidelines.

"In the context of trying to ask for shared sacrifice and get the budget into balance, the Republicans are saying in the midst of making all these decisions let us give a rip-roaring tax cut to people at the very top," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. "It takes your breath away."

And Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.) said: "These are the questions I'm asking: Number one -- does the budget really balance by 2002?"

Despite the evidence that the negotiations were faltering, House Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) said late today he expects negotiators will iron out remaining details and the House Budget Committee will proceed with its scheduled markup session.

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