WASHINGTON -- Congress tried last night to leave on a 10-day spring vacation without voting on billions of dollars in disaster aid for flood-ravaged areas from California to the Dakotas.
But a revolt, led by Democrats, kept them here with the issue still undecided.
Last-ditch efforts by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi to patch together a slimmed-down aid bill failed to secure unanimous agreement in the House and Senate to use that approach.
Republicans and Democrats from the afflicted states denounced Republican leaders for planning to have Congress go home without approving some or all of the $5.5 billion in emergency assistance. They likened the action to the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996.
"The same irresponsible crowd that shut down the government is now shutting down disaster relief," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, one of the states hardest hit by floods.
What started as a disaster-relief bill to help 35 states became weighed down in recent days with dozens of unrelated provisions.
Sponsors pinned their pet projects to the bill, knowing it was must-pass legislation.
Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the Republican leader and a North Dakota native, apologized to his colleagues on the House floor for the debacle, and tried to soften the blow by insisting that other federal emergency disaster aid was in the pipeline.
But the spectacle of lawmakers heading home without voting aid to storm-struck ranchers, farmers and homeowners is certain to fuel a public perception that Washington, and the Republican-led Congress in particular, is woefully out of touch with average Americans.
"It's terrible that people out in the Dakotas and Minnesota and other places waiting for help are going to be left empty-handed," said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader.
In a sign of the internal divisions, scores of House Republicans, including Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, deserted their leadership in a procedural vote that would have allowed them to adjourn. The motion was defeated 265-75.
The House and Senate both approved $8.4 billion emergency spending bills, which included $5.5 billion in disaster aid. But the problems started when House and Senate negotiators struggled to iron out the differences in their bills and adopt legislation that President Clinton would enact.
Money was not the issue. The main sticking point was that conservative Republicans are insisting that any emergency spending measure include a provision intended to prevent government shutdowns during budget fights.
Meanwhile, the Senate yesterday neared approval of a resolution that calls for eliminating the deficit, providing substantial tax cuts and imposing new spending restraints on Medicare over the next five years.
Approval of the resolution, expected this morning, will mark the end of a bumpy road test of the budget agreement announced by Clinton and GOP leaders in early May. It has weathered contentious debates in both the House and Senate, where its defenders have managed to defeat efforts to rewrite the budget to pump in more money for highways, schools and other politically popular programs.
The budget resolution, which represents an important milestone in Congress' efforts in recent years to bring down the deficit, calls for balancing the budget by 2002 by cutting projected spending by more than $300 billion.
But the budget makes room for a net $85 billion in tax cuts over five years, and some $32 billion in spending increases for key Clinton initiatives such as expanding children's health coverage and restoring some benefits for legal immigrants.
Pub Date: 5/23/97