WASHINGTON -- The tortuous saga of the budget entered its concluding chapter yesterday when lawmakers reached final agreement on a sweeping deficit reduction agreement and congressional leaders pushed for a speedy vote this morning in the House.
In the final hours of their deliberations yesterday, budget negotiators came up $10 billion short in their quest for a $500 billion reduction in the federal government's budget deficit but vowed that the slip wouldn't thwart efforts to pass the agreement into law and end the months-old budget stalemate.
"It's good enough for government work," quipped House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., perhaps only half in jest. "You can round up to $500 billion."
Throughout the day, congressional leaders and aides nervously counted votes in the House, where the deficit reduction bill is expected to encounter the stiffest resistance.
By midday, according to one senior House Democrat, leaders of both parties had counted 134 Democrats and 48 Republicans in favor of the compromise -- a figure that fell considerably short of the 217 needed for passage.
"It's nip and tuck," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.
The House planned to vote early this morning, and the Senate vote is expected to come this evening.
Nevertheless, the leaders predicted that the compromise would be adopted in both chambers and that President Bush would sign the measure.
See BUDGET, 12A, Col. 1 BUDGET, from 1A
They said that the apparent paucity of support was to be expected and that the drive to pass the deficit bill was an uphill battle they would win.
"I am increasingly confident there will be requisite bipartisan support," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.
Early yesterday morning, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, put the finishing touches on a tax package that is supposed to increase federal revenues by more than $137 billion over five years.
Apparently, that figure is almost $10 billion less than the amount congressional negotiators had been counting on.
In the flurry to cut a deal between sharply differing versions of the deficit bill passed last week by the House and Senate, those extra billions evaporated.
One $5.2 billion chunk was lost, for example, when the Senate agreed to a House demand and dropped a provision requiring state and local employees to pay the 1.45 percent Medicare payroll tax.
"It's the legislative trade-off process in the revenue area," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif. "Some give-and-take on all sides."
Meanwhile, the Bush administration itself had weighed into the negotiations, holding out for deeper cuts in the Medicare program than the $43.8 billion reduction agreed to in the budget talks.
"We need more savings," one White House staffer stated flatly. "Too many taxes, not enough savings. The president's got to have something he can sign."
The deficit bill would raise those taxes and cut spending on a variety of benefit programs, including Medicare and agriculture programs, and would constitute the centerpiece of the plan to trim $490 billion from the deficit during the next five years.
The bill itself will implement about half of those reductions, with the balance coming from defense spending reductions and reduced payments on the national debt.
"When you get within $10 billion of $500 billion, that's pretty good," said Mr. Bentsen.
The agreement would implement the most sweeping exercise in deficit reduction ever.
But as ambitious as this may be, it would take only a small bite out of the government's mounting debt.
The White House estimates that the government's spending shortfall for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, would weigh in at $294 billion.
The budget legislation before Congress would trim that amount by roughly $40 billion, so the nation's long-term debt would swell by another $254 billion.
And even if the bill manages to cut the deficit by $490 billion over the next five years -- a contention many budget experts question -- today's federal debt of $3 trillion-plus is expected, during the same period, to soar to $5 trillion.