WASHINGTON -- In a desperate effort to avert a full-scale shutdown of the federal government tomorrow, Democratic leaders assembled a new budget plan last night and sent it to the House floor for expected passage.
The new budget plan, which Democrats called bipartisan but some Republicans decried as a Democratic Party document, was expected to be voted on in the House in the early hours of this morning. A vaguely drafted document, it promised to lessen the reduction in Medicare benefits and the increase in excise taxes contemplated by the budget accord unveiled on Sept. 30. The Senate was to take up the plan today.
"It's absolutely urgent we move the process forward," said Representative Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif. "That's why we're moving tonight."
But it seemed unlikely that the plan would win much support among House Republicans, most of whom helped send the original bipartisan budget agreement to defeat last week.
"This is not a bipartisan bill," said Representative Bill Archer, R-Texas. "This is a Democratic bill, pure and simple."
Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee and the only Republican present at yesterday's budget discussions, refused to go along with the budget proposal.
"I don't want to cast any aspersions on the work that has taken place here," he said. "I'm not signing the conference report, because I have not had an opportunity to consult, confer, with Republican senators."
During a rare Sunday session, communication between the two parties appeared mostly limited to finger-pointing for the Friday midnight shutdown of the government, which shuttered federal tourist attractions and halted all but essential weekend federal activities nationwide.
President Bush effectively directed the halt to federal activities when he announced that he would not sign a stopgap spending bill passed Friday that would have kept the government in operation for a week, during which time congressional leaders hoped to break the budget impasse.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said President Bush's veto Saturday of the bill was "a bad mistake" that had slowed the talks. But Vice President Dan Quayle, appearing on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley" program, said Mr. Bush was not the problem, rather "The problem is Congress."
Mr. Quayle predicted that any new budget plan would include 90 percent of the elements built into the budget deal President Bush unsuccessfully lobbied for last week. With those changes, he said, the new plan "will ultimately pass."
"We now know what the problems were with the old one," agreed Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, on the same program. "The new budget agreement, in my view, will address the problem of the overly large Medicare cuts . . . and also will address the revenue part of the package."
Few of those changes, it seems, will be apparent in the new spending plan, which is to include only broad spending levels, leaving it to individual congressional committees to "fill in the blanks" later. The tactic is intended to make it easier for rank-and-file lawmakers to vote for the budget plan, sparing them the prospect of voting for painful spending cuts and tax increases before they have been vetted through the regular committee process.
The budget plan, which lays out the spending and revenue outlines of the federal budget for the 7-day-old fiscal year, does not require the president's signature or approval. But it does determine the general shape of the spending and taxing bills later fashioned to implement the plan. Those bills, in turn, must bear the president's signature before they can become law.
Mr. Bush has said that he will not sign a stopgap money bill -- thus keeping the government shut down -- until Congress
passes a budget to his liking.
"The deadline that we're talking about is on Tuesday morning," said Mr. Foley. Hundreds of thousands of workers are scheduled to return to work tomorrow from the holiday weekend. Most will be sent home unless Congress and the president settle on a deficit plan.
Although Mr. Bush spent yesterday conferring by telephone with his chief of staff, John H. Sununu, and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady -- part of the administration team that negotiated the defeated budget pact -- yesterday's budget talks took place among key lawmakers and staff.
According to sources close to the talks, all sides agreed on a $500 billion, five-year package that would trim the current year's deficit by $40 billion -- the same dimensions as the package administration officials and congressional leaders shook hands on last Sunday.
But last night's package called for $50 billion worth of savings in mandatory spending programs such as Medicare over the next five years. The original budget pact, by comparison, called for $60 billion worth of savings from the Medicare plan.