WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans say they have learned their lesson about government shutdowns: They don't want one ever again on their watch.
Fine, say the Democrats. Except that the Republicans' proposed "Government Shutdown Prevention Act" would automatically cut programs that Democrats like.
What's worse, Democrats say, the Republicans have attached this unpleasant device to a must-pass measure that would provide emergency aid for the Midwest flood victims.
"To try and piggyback on disaster for other purposes is unconscionable," said Sen. John Glenn, an Ohio Democrat. His Democratic colleague, Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, likened the tactic to a refusal to let someone borrow a phone to make an emergency call "unless you agree to hand over your child's college fund."
Now in the midst of budget talks with the Democrats, Republicans want to avoid any repeat of the government shutdowns of two years ago, for which voters largely blamed their hard-line tactics. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, charged in a fiery speech yesterday that the Democrats wanted to keep alive the threat of a shutdown of federal agencies for tactical reasons.
"They want to be able to threaten the shutdown of the government," McCain said, "so they can achieve one or two things:
"One, an enormous political advantage, like they gained two years ago, when over Christmas we saw pictures of federal workers sitting around empty Christmas trees.
"Or what they were able to do last year -- basically blackmail the Congress into spending around $9 billion more than had ever been budgeted before."
The Republican measure would eliminate the annual threat that the government will run out of money if new spending bills are not passed by the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1.
This is not an idle concern in any year. But this year, the budget work is moving at an especially slow pace as President Clinton and Republican leaders keep searching for an elusive five-year deal to eliminate the deficit.
The new proposal would allow the government to continue functioning, more or less normally, for another full year even if the budget work isn't completed. But each agency would receive 2 percent less than the current year's amount.
Democrats, who are fighting for the increases in social spending included in President Clinton's proposed budget, complain that this measure would kill the Republicans' incentive to bargain fairly.
"What good is there in having negotiations on a budget that has already been determined?" asked Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader.
"Why do some wish to put the whole Congress on automatic pilot?" Daschle asked reporters.
But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is determined to press on with his shutdown-prevention plan, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee over Democratic objections. "When it comes to money, to saving the people's money, I'm ready to stand and fight," Lott said.
Given the delicate political nature of the flood emergency bill, which also includes money for the Bosnia peacekeeping mission, Democrats will not try to filibuster the measure, Daschle said.
Democrats are counting on Clinton to veto the bill and to force the Republicans to back down.
Let him try, McCain said.
"If the president of the United States wants to veto [the bill], fine," McCain roared on the Senate floor. "The president then will be responsible the next time the government shuts down."
Pub Date: 5/01/97