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Pundits & Prose

The Devil Is Always In The Details

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (May 9) -- "We have an agreement," President Bill Clinton announced a week ago after lengthy negotiations on balancing the federal budget.

But did he have a deal?

"A lot of this is uncertain. A lot has not been pinned down," the Democrats' House minority leader Dick Gephardt cautioned as some things appeared to be coming unpinned this week. "This thing is moving faster than it should."

What the President also said was: "We have reached agreement in broad but fairly specific terms." The more complete statement revealed the less complete deal.

There are plenty of threads that could be pulled to start to unravel the intricate weave of the agreement. Congressman Bill Archer, the Texas Republican who chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, tugged on one of them in a CNN interview Thursday.

The budget agreement anticipates $35 billion worth of tax cuts which Clinton wants for education over the next five years. Clinton is counting on his $1,500 "Hope Scholarship" -- an annual tax credit for two years of community college tuition -- and a tax deduction of up to $10,000 for college costs to ease the burden on middle-class families.

"I am really not sure what they have agreed to," Chairman Archer said. "In all the written material we've been given by our leadership, it does not specify a $35 billion amount."

That's because Republican leaders struck the deal by phone with White House negotiators last Friday. Administration officials were anxious to get it in writing.

Republican leaders were obliging, to a point, with a "Dear Mr. President" letter that promises to get "as close to $35 billion as possible" and to use the President's label "Hope" on whatever package emerges.

Archer, not a budget negotiator, is not obligated to make any such assurance. Rather, the chairman is demonstrating the traditional power of his committee's tax-writing authority. To a degree, he's also taking a measure of pleasureful revenge for the years he sat in the minority while the once mighty Dan Rostenkowski held sway from the chairman's seat. Committee chairs are a power unto th