GOP, Clinton face spending showdown Policy questions, Lewinsky scandal fueling conflict over funding measures

Government shutdown looms

August 09, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In an incumbent-friendly year when most members of Congress could cruise to re-election, House Republican leaders are on a collision course with President Clinton over the only task they must get done: passing spending bills to keep the government running.

White House officials and congressional Republicans are positioning themselves to blame each other if their confrontation threatens a government shutdown shortly before the election.

The White House says the conflict centers on controversial policy changes wedged into spending bills, from restrictions on the 2000 Census and family planning to global warming and public housing. Republicans insist that the disputes are over President Clinton's demand for spending above the caps set in last year's balanced budget agreement.

But the Monica Lewinsky scandal engulfing the White House is providing the political subtext. GOP leaders are hoping to win concessions from a weakened president who has been able to best them in past budget confrontations.

Meanwhile, President Clinton, who is scheduled to appear before a federal grand jury next week, may be grateful for any chance to change the subject back to budget priorities.

"Most of us think when we get back in September, the environment will be drastically different. News will happen," said House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner of Ohio. "We'll size up the endgame when we get back."

Major bills unfinished

This session of Congress will almost surely be remembered more for what it did not accomplish than what it did, political scientists say. With fewer than 20 legislative days remaining, Congress is unlikely to pass any of its major agenda items: tobacco control legislation, campaign finance reform, managed care regulations, proposed tax reforms or a whopping new tax cut.

Lawmakers refused to act on President Clinton's proposals to fund 100,000 new teachers, new school construction and repairs, an expansion of Medicare for early retirees and the unemployed, and new child care programs. With the Monica Lewinsky matter occupying his time and weakening his stature, Clinton has been unable to press his demands.

The lawmakers may not even succeed in passing a budget blueprint for fiscal year 1999. It would be the first time that has happened since 1974, when Congress crafted the law requiring one.

"This Congress has been an abysmal failure," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, aiming his jab at the Republicans who control the House and Senate. "They haven't the foggiest idea how to reach a consensus, and we can make that stick."

Congress did pass an overhaul of the management and governance of the Internal Revenue Service, but that legislation was largely written last year, when it passed the House.

Lawmakers also passed a $216 billion transportation bill, the largest public works bill in history. But that was supposed to pass in 1997, when the last transportation law expired.

GOP strategy

This meager work product results largely from a deliberate GOP strategy. After a very stormy start when they took over control of Congress in 1995, the Republicans mostly just wanted to stay out of trouble this year.

"It was quite clear right from the beginning that the Republican Congress set out to pass the basic appropriations bills, certainly the highway bill, do some grandstanding on some other things that weren't going to pass, and then go home and run for re-election," said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution.

What's more, almost all Congress watchers say Republicans are unlikely to pay a price for inaction. The balanced-budget agreement last year appears to be bearing fruit in 1998 with the first budget surplus since 1969, and many of the largest parts of the 1997 tax cut package take effect this year, including a $400-per-child tax credit.

Besides, sometimes the electorate just doesn't want Washington to pass laws.

"As Paul Newman once said, 'Sometimes nothing is a pretty cool hand,' " said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.

But the nation's sanguine mood may change if members of Congress fail to do the one thing they must do: pass the 13 annual spending bills that keep the government running from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

The House has passed 11 of the 13, the Senate just eight. None have completed the process of resolving House and Senate differences so they can be sent to the president. Clinton has threatened to veto as many as seven of the 13 bills, many of which contain policy provisions long sought by conservatives over his objections.

Some Republicans are wondering why their leaders would pursue a policy of confrontation when the electorate is satisfied and Congress hopes to adjourn in early October to campaign for re-election.

"There are always political perils when you pursue a take-it-or-leave-it strategy," said Rep. Amo Houghton, a New York Republican. "That is a very dangerous course of action."

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