Budget panels expected to back Clinton package Approval of outlines could hand early victory to president

March 07, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may celebrate the firs major victory for his economic plan this week, when aides expect the House and Senate budget committees to approve the outlines of his proposals largely intact.

"I don't want to declare victory yet because it's too soon," a senior administration official said in an interview yesterday. "But we think we have the votes both in the committees and on the floor."

Both budget committees are expected to trim Mr. Clinton's spending plans by at least $3.5 billion in the first year and by as much as $60 billion over five years to make up for a shortfall in the president's calculations of how much his proposals would reduce the federal budget deficit.

But the White House has reluctantly accepted these cuts -- many of them in Mr. Clinton's "investment" initiatives -- because of the political determination to protect the Clinton plan's integrity as a genuine effort to get the nation out of the red.

Although they dispute the congressional recalculation of Mr. Clinton's numbers, administration officials recognize that the lawmakers are under great public pressure to prove that the spending cuts they vote for are as real as the tax increases that will follow.

The additional cuts made by the budget committees are also intended to keep spending within the limits of the 1990 budget agreement -- another political and psychological barrier.

But Mr. Clinton, who plans to meet tomorrow with Democrats on the House Budget Committee and on Tuesday with the Senate Budget Committee Democrats, appears to have avoided any deeper erosion or readjustment of his budget plans, aides say.

"It's only been 17 days past the speech [presenting the economic plan], and I think we're in pretty good shape," the senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday.

The official's comments were echoed by Democratic leadership sources in the House and the Senate, and buttressed Friday by a spokesman for Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, a conservative Democrat on the House Budget Committee, who said the momentum among committee Democrats for further spending cuts seems to have stalled.

In what was regarded by the Clinton administration as another positive sign, Sen. Sam Nunn, the powerful chairman of the Armed Services Committee, appeared Friday to grudgingly accept Mr. Clinton's cuts in the defense budget.

Mr. Nunn protested that the president had effectively cut the Pentagon budget by twice what he proposed during his election campaign and that defense was bearing most of the burden of austerity.

The Georgia Democrat warned that he would fight any additional defense cuts. But he stopped well short of what many of his colleagues expected would be a fierce campaign to restore some of what he calls $122 billion in Pentagon cuts over five years.

Mr. Clinton had already won over Rep. John P. Murtha, a similarly conservative Pennsylvania Democrat who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. Mr. Murtha told the president during a private meeting at the White House two weeks ago that he, too, would fight further cuts in the defense budget but agreed to accept the level Mr. Clinton has proposed.

The budget resolution to be taken up by the Senate committee Tuesday and the House panel Wednesday is only a broad outline that sets spending levels in various categories and determines how much is to be raised with new taxes.

Much of the fighting over specifics remains to be done in the appropriations committees and in the committees that write tax law.

Mr. Clinton can also expect a rousing debate on the budget resolution when it comes to the House and Senate floors, probably next week.

In the Senate, the chairman of the Budget Committee, Jim Sasser, a Tennessee Democrat, is expected to lead a fight to eliminate funding for the space station and Texas-based Supercollider, two high-tech science programs that have political well as policy implications for the Clinton team.

Mr. Sasser, who can count on considerable Republican support for his efforts, chose not to raise the issue in committee, an aide said, because he wanted to be a loyal soldier in bringing Mr. Clinton's budget to the floor.

Problems also await the president as Congress takes up his $16 billion stimulus package, which is scheduled to begin moving on the floor of the House once the budget resolution has passed.

Conservatives who are unhappy that the budget resolution failed to seek deeper spending cuts are likely to turn their fire on Mr. Clinton's plan to give the economy a short-term boost.

Recent drops in the unemployment rate and other signs of an economic recovery lend weight to the argument, sure to be waged by Republicans, that this extra burst of spending isn't necessary.

The Clinton administration expects to lose a portion of the stimulus package, which included $3.4 billion in unemployment benefits that were approved by Congress last week.

But administration officials believe that that will be a token gesture toward the spending-cut fervor that will be ultimately overcome by the attraction of new spending for projects such as highway construction, Head Start and child immunization.

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