For Leon Panetta, A Miniature Budget Crisis

Can it be that Leon Panetta, the former director of the White House Office of Management & Budget, has more trouble managing his own debts than the nation's? Panetta, recently named as President Clinton's Chief of Staff, was dining with his wife, Sylvia, in early August at the popular Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House. But minutes after the ex-OMB director plunked down a credit card to pay for the meal, an embarrassed waiter returned to whisper the bad news: The card had been rejected. Panetta produced another card that went through.

Panetta spokesman Barry Toiv says the staff chief's wife was told by the card company that the couple's credit was fine; the restaurant's credit-verification machine was at fault. "It was a screw-up," insists Toiv, who will not identify the credit firm.

At least Panetta isn't alone. Robert Rubin, director of the White House National Economic Council, had a similar plastic mishap last winter. His American Express Gold Card was rejected when he picked up the check for a dinner with other members of the economic team. Rubin, a multimillionaire, paid with his MasterCard.

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