WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives narrowly rejected last night a sweeping proposal to cut more than $90 billion from the federal budget deficit as the 103rd Congress worked around the clock to finish its work for the year.
"We're going to need these [funds] to make health care work," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri argued as part of the successful White House campaign to preserve any surplus funds for future spending. "This is not the time to make that fight."
The final tally of 219 to 213 was a disappointment for reform-minded lawmakers, who were elected in a wave of voter anger last fall, as they prepared to take off for the holiday recess with much of their reform agenda incomplete.
In its final session, the House adopted a watered-down campaign finance reform proposal and shelved a measure that would have limited the gifts that lawmakers may accept from lobbyists. An impasse between the House and Senate also blocked a vote last night on a compromise handgun control bill, threatening Congress' plans to wrap up its work by Thanksgiving.
A package of proposed reforms in the way Congress does its business emerged from a joint House-Senate panel only yesterday morning, too late to be taken up until after the senators and representatives reconvene in January.
"I think we incoming freshmen thought change would be more quickly accomplished, but the issues were often of excruciating difficulty and the process for dealing with them is cumbersome," observed Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a first-term Democrat from North Dakota.
The frustrations were deeper for some would-be reformers who thought the huge turnover this year -- more than 110 new members in the House alone -- would radically alter the landscape.
"Everything is just a game around here and it stinks," said Rep. Timothy J. Penny, a six-term Minnesota Democrat who found himself outflanked by both liberals and conservatives in his drive to cut $90 billion from the deficit over the next five years.
"That's one of the reasons I'm out of here," he added, referring to his plans to retire at the end of next year. "This place is never going to change."
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Maryland Republican running for governor, withheld her vote in favor of the politically dicey issue until after its defeat was certain. She stood on the House floor for several minutes with voting card in hand, watching the numbers grow on the electronic board, until a cheer rang out when opponents hit the winning total of 218. She then inserted her card in the voting machine, and the green light went up by her name.
Also voting in favor of the bipartisan budget cut proposal were Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore. Voting against it were Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican, and Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin and Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County.
Brady bill snag
A last-minute snag also developed last night over the Brady bill, a handgun control bill that appeared headed for enactment after a surprising action in the Senate Saturday night.
Senators have already scattered across the nation for their year-end recess, but Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine said he would call them back into session next month if a new compromise with the House could not be found today.
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the landmark Brady bill, which would require a five-business-day waiting period and a background check by law enforcement LTC officers on would-be handgun purchasers.
Conferees yesterday backed a House stipulation that there be a five-year delay before the waiting period is phased out in favor of instant computer checks. And early this morning the full House endorsed that position with a vote 238-187.
Earlier, the Senate had passed a four-year "sunset" provision, with the option of a fifth year left up to the attorney general. The House resisted this initiative.
The latest version of the bill as approved by the House also excluded Senate provisions that would allow licensed dealers from different states to sell to other dealers and another that would expand antique weapons' exemption from gun control laws.
"We proceeded to act in good faith and got zippo" in negotiations with the Democrats, said Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas.
Congressional leaders and the Clinton administration put together a powerful coalition of special interest groups to defeat by a 219-to-213 vote Mr. Penny's proposal to lop $90 billion off the federal budget deficit.
About half the cuts would have come from Medicare, and another $32 billion from the adoption of Vice President Al Gore's proposal to reduce the federal work force by 252,000 over five years. The remainder would have come from additional cuts throughout the government.