McCurry countered that White House staff members are united in wanting to reach a budget agreement. "George and Leon want a deal, but they don't want a bad one," he said.
Lott suggested that no "real progress" on the budget will be made until the negotiations are narrowed to about six officials--Clinton, two top White House aides, and three GOP congressional leaders.
While the two top Republican negotiators, Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), may try to compromise with Clinton, Lott said, they face restraints from some of the more conservative Republicans who, among other things, are insisting on deep cuts in the rates of increase in Medicare and Medicaid spending.
"Gingrich is on a short leash and can go only so far," Lott said. "And Bob Dole, in case he doesn't know it, is on a short leash too, and if he goes too far he'll get in hot water."
Lott, who is expected to be elected Senate majority leader if Dole cinches the GOP presidential nomination and vacates the post, said Dole "wasn't happy" at first about his election last year as his top deputy. Dole had supported keeping Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) as the Republican whip, his chief deputy, but Lott defeated Simpson in a hotly contested race.
"There was a need for a more aggressive leader," Lott said, "and I believe that Dole now believes my election was the right thing. We have a good working relationship."
He suggested that Dole, if he locks up the nomination early, should relinquish the leader's job sooner rather than later and said Dole probably will step aside as majority leader as early as April if he has cinched the nomination by then.
"Frankly," Lott said, "I didn't think it would work for him to run for president and remain Senate majority leader, but he's done an excellent job of juggling it. He has incredible stamina."