WASHINGTON -- Congress endorsed the most sweeping deficit reduction bill in U.S. history yesterday, bringing to an end the budget crisis that had convulsed the political landscape for the past five months.
By a 54-45 vote, the Senate followed the lead of the House, which approved the budget legislation earlier yesterday on a 228-200 vote after a 21-hour session that culminated in a bleary-eyed 7 a.m. roll call.
"They say Congress wouldn't pass a bill like this in 100 years," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. "Well, Congress hasn't passed a bill like this in 200 years."
The votes illustrated the partisan spirit of the tortuous budget negotiations. In the House, all but 47 of the 173 Republicans who voted cast their ballots against the package, reflecting repeated GOP criticism that the bill shrank from spending cuts and relied too heavily on tax increases. In the Senate, 25 Republicans voted against the plan and 19 voted in favor of it. Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., embroiled in an uphill re-election effort, was the only member of the Senate not to vote.
Republican ambivalence was also illustrated by President Bush's tepid endorsement of the bill moments after the Senate's action.
The president, traveling in Hawaii, said he would sign the legislation into law, thus averting last night's impending shutdown of the federal government. But he also suggested that he would hold his nose while he did so, a statement indicating that Republican officials would make a concerted effort to distance themselves from the package in the 10 days left before congressional elections.
"A lot of the members feel as I do -- they were gagging on certain provisions -- but I'm glad that it's passed," he said. "If I were all that enthusiastic about [the budget package], you'd have seen more Republicans voting for it."
If Republicans have much to dislike about the package, so do Democrats. As the core of a plan to shave more than $490 billion from the federal deficit during the next five years, the bill passed yesterday would trigger the second-largest tax increase ever, reaching into the wallets of almost every American. It would also trim spending on a number of benefit programs, including Medicare.
"We have here a package that is balanced, that is fair, that is responsible," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine. "It is not perfect . . . but it will take us off the course we have been on for the last ten years."
Passage of the deficit bill followed a day of intensive deliberations among congressional budget negotiators and -Z nervous vote-counting by leaders in both chambers.
Once a final agreement had been struck Friday afternoon, House leaders pushed for a speedy vote, in part because they feared that the tenuous support for the measure would evaporate as the hours passed.
"Once you think you might have the people, you move," said Representative Bill Richardson, D-N.M., one of an army of Democratic "whips" who spent the day corraling votes.
By the time the House had voted, little doubt remained that the Senate would follow suit. Nevertheless, administration officials and Senate leaders lobbied wavering members throughout the day as if the outcome of the vote were very much in doubt.
In midafternoon, for example, Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady and administration budget chief Richard G. Darman cornered one recalcitrant senator, Steve Symms, R-Idaho, who complained that "we're going to lose our ass in the fall" elections by supporting the measure.
"That's a political debate," replied Mr. Brady. "The president is just trying to govern."
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, then chimed in, imploring the lawmaker to "stand with the president," sug
gesting that, once the vote was over, Republicans would have 10 days left before the elections to blame Democrats for forcing a tax increase.
Despite those pleas, Mr. Symms strode into the chamber moments later and announced that he would vote against the bill.
That conversation reflects the quandary Republicans have found themselves in since last May, when Mr. Bush abandoned his no-new-taxes pledge and began to pursue a deficit deal with the Democrats. Many Republican conservatives regarded the president's tax reversal as an act of political folly and soon began to campaign at home against the budget policy of the Republican administration.
But it has been a grueling political season for leaders of both parties. White House officials spent more than four months negotiating a budget deal with key members of Congress in a special "budget summit," only to have a majority of Democrats and Republicans in the House reject the summiteers' handiwork.
Nevertheless, the bill headed for the president's signature built on that defunct budget agreement, reaching deeper into the wallets of better-off taxpayers than the original accord, while softening the impact of its contemplated spending reductions.