Republican leaders consider short-term debt measure Federal borrowing limit will be exceeded in weeks


WASHINGTON -- Republican congressional leaders want to extend the limit on federal borrowing until only the end of March, high-ranking aides said yesterday, while they continue to seek a way to pass a longer extension that would satisfy their own fiscal conservatives without provoking a veto.

Unlike some of the conservatives' proposals, the short-term extension would not impose any conditions or add legislative measures to the measure increasing the statutory borrowing limit of $4.9 trillion. The Treasury is expected to exceed that figure by March 21.

Some well-placed Senate aides said that much had been settled. But aides from the House said the short-term strategy was merely the leading option. "Nothing is definitive; no final decisions have been made," one said. In any case, no action is likely before late next week or the week after.

Many Republicans abhor voting to approve additional government debt. Consequently, their leaders would have preferred to face the issue only once this year, and deferred action last month by voting to exempt March Social Security checks from the limit -- a step that in effect pushed the problem back into March.

But despite several meetings this week and last, they have been unable to settle on a long-term strategy and turned toward the short-term extension instead.

That will give them more time to debate various choices, and perhaps will give Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole more of an opportunity to weigh in. His campaign for the presidential nomination has precluded all but brief visits to the Senate.

In the longer term, some Republicans want to try once more to pass a plan that would balance the federal budget in seven years, and they would use the debt limit extension as bait to get the president to sign it.

They tried to use that strategy last fall, but President Clinton vetoed the budget bill in November and an increase in the debt limit died with it.

Others want to couple a debt-limit extension with a step toward budget-balancing in the form of some curbs on spending for Medicaid or other entitlement programs.

And still others think the best approach would be to tack on a single important element of their agenda, like a welfare bill, or to push plans suggested by the nation's governors for welfare and Medicaid, the health care program for the poor.

Since the $4.9 trillion limit was reached in November, the Treasury Department has avoided passing it by juggling funds among various pension accounts, which are not counted toward the statutory limit.

But the Treasury Department said this week that it would run out of such options March 21, and without an extension, the government would be forced into default on bonds and other obligations.

Some Republicans and almost all Democrats have criticized strategies that risk default and have urged adoption of a one-year extension uncluttered by additional provisions.

"It is just not a responsible way to be acting," said Rep. Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican.

New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said another short-term extension was "not good government, and I don't think it's good politics. I'm disappointed to hear this. I thought we had an agreement to do it and get it past the presidential election."

The debt is not the only tricky issue facing Republicans. &L Spending authority for several government departments expires

March 15, and Democrats and some Senate Republicans have been demanding a restoration of budget cuts imposed by the House on education spending.

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