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An Accord Born in State of Civility

Negotiations: Governors avoided 'fighting words' and worked away from the limelight to craft plan that has revived budget talks.

February 07, 1996|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — First off, they pledged to shun what Gov. William F. Weld (R-Mass.) called "fighting words."

The Democrats were not to refer to their bottom-line demand as "entitlements" and the Republicans were not to call their one nonnegotiable "block grants."

Instead, the governors spoke of "Plan X" and "Program Y."

Then they embraced an "axiom" proposed by Gov. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.): During the talk, nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.

That allowed participants to venture into compromises "knowing full well that they really had a veto power at the end," said Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R-Wis.), who masterminded Tuesday's highly touted plan that has suddenly rejuvenated the stalled budget negotiations between President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress.

Finally there was a steady stream of late-night memos on the mind-numbing details--to ensure that neither side misunderstood the other.

Even with those guidelines, the 100-plus hours of private talks among six governors over several weeks did not lack for suspense or emotion.

At one point or another, all but one among the group got "blue in the face" and stormed out.

But the special chemistry nurtured by Thompson and Gov. Robert Miller (D-Nev.) prevailed, keeping fundamental disagreements from becoming fatal. And on Tuesday, after four climactic days here, their outline on Medicaid and welfare reform was endorsed by every single governor--and won qualified praise from Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

That remarkable display of gubernatorial bipartisanship stands in sharp contrast to the acrimony that has marred the talks between Clinton and GOP leaders in Congress, which proved fruitless after a full year.

And it revealed the extent to which collegiality--once so closely identified with the U.S. Senate--has become a quality found less in Washington than among the chief executives who toil in the provinces. The governors' achievement seems all the more remarkable coming in the heat of an election year.

"This was a clear case where politics was pushed aside," Gov. Arne Carlson (R-Minn.) marveled.

"This has been bipartisan from Day One," Thompson said. "We all forgot for a time whether we were Republicans or Democrats." Added Gov. Mike Lowry (D-Wash.): "Bipartisanship has been the tradition of the NGA [National Governors' Assn.]. It's our most important strength."

The triumphant performance by the governors also suggests that Congress and the White House may well reach a compromise if they are willing to put pragmatism over ideology and focus instead on solving real problems.

"What guided us wasn't so much philosophy as what works," said Gov. Terry E. Branstad (R-Iowa), whose comments were widely echoed by his colleagues. "We are the ones who have to administer welfare and Medicaid and we need to have something that's flexible and something that works."

The governors got deeply involved in early December when negotiations over a seven-year balanced budget between the White House and Congress deadlocked, with Medicaid and welfare reform as two major stumbling blocks.

The two parties discreetly sought help from Thompson and Miller, chairman and vice chairman of the governors association, respectively. They each named two colleagues from their own parties to form a group that began meeting weekly in Washington--among themselves and with the principal budget negotiators in Congress and the White House.

Most of the meetings took place not in the Capitol, with its roaming herd of reporters, but half a dozen blocks away at the offices of the governors' association.

That proved to be a propitious move because on numerous occasions enraged participants stormed out of the meetings.

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