WASHINGTON - In a victory for the White House, the Republican-led Senate blocked proposed cuts in education and job training yesterday, signaling a retreat by the once-emboldened GOP in its drive to shrink spending.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the party's likely presidential nominee, joined in the 84-to-16 vote approving one of President Clinton's top legislative priorities this year.
"For the first time in two years, we've seen the kind of coalition of bipartisan support which has been lacking, particularly on the No. 1 priority for American families: having good quality education for their kids," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Democrats contended that the Republicans were bowing to political pressure brought by voters angry that GOP efforts to curb the growth of federal spending on popular programs had led to two partial government shutdowns.
A third shutdown of nine Cabinet agencies looms this weekend if Congress can't strike a deal with Mr. Clinton.
"A small group of them capitulated on the merits and the rest capitulated on the basis of political survival," Sen. John Kerry, another Democrat from Massachusetts, said of his Republican colleagues.
But for Republicans who held their ground against more spending yesterday's vote was a depressing sign that the seductive politics of federal largess once again prevailed.
"Spending is popular, and when a balanced-budget drive fails, it encourages people to spend more," Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, the former GOP presidential contender, said of yesterday's vote. "It was very disappointing."
Republicans are eager to avoid a repeat of the pounding they have taken in the polls when Americans said they blamed them more than they did the president for the budget stalemate that led to the two partial shutdowns of government and to millions of dollars in lost services and wasted pay.
Included in the $2.7 billion amendment, added to a Republican zTC spending bill, was money for Head Start, a summer jobs program, compensatory aid to schools in poor communities, the school-to-work program, retraining for dislocated workers and one of Mr. Clinton's favorites: the Goals 2000 school reform program.
The extra money, which was transferred from other categories of federal spending, will bring spending for those programs almost to the same level as in 1995.
Yesterday's victory for the Democrats was only partial because the battle isn't over.
Nearly two months after they gave up trying to reach a balanced-budget deal with Mr. Clinton, the Republicans are picking up the pieces of vetoed or stalled spending bills and hoping to salvage as much savings as they can this year.
$8 billion short
Their omnibus measure, which includes money for nine Cabinet departments and other agencies whose spending authority expires Friday night, falls $25 billion short of what Mr. Clinton originally requested and $8 billion short of the recent White House offer.
Congress must approve spending for these agencies to avert another partial shutdown of the government.
The House passed a bill last week that would include $3.5 billion of the extra money Mr. Clinton wants. But the money would become available only if Congress enacts a separate bill to cut money from automatic spending programs, like welfare, Medicare or Medicaid.
After the Senate votes, probably today, on proposals to restore money for environmental programs and Mr. Clinton's "COPs" program, differences with the House must be reconciled.
The legislative maneuvering is expected to continue until the end of the month, when Congress leaves for a two-week Easter recess. It will likely become entwined with efforts to extend the federal debt ceiling.
Mr. Clinton signed into law yesterday a temporary measure that will avoid the nation's first-ever default on its debts, which could have occurred March 22. That stopgap legislation expires March 29.
But the Republicans are now clearly negotiating at a disadvantage that the Democrats are determined to exploit.
The White House has already raised the prospect of further vetoes if Mr. Clinton doesn't get what he wants.
"Last year, they had the wind at their back and now they are becalmed," David Mason, a congressional analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said of the Republican budget-cutters. "Clinton is an effective tactician, and he has fought them to a standstill."
Pub Date: 3/13/96