GOP yields on budget to avoid veto, shutdown Preferred topics dropped from spending measures

attention is on election

October 07, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the election looming, senior Republicans in Congress are giving up many of the contentious items in their spending bills in order to avoid a budget showdown with President Clinton and get home to campaign as soon as possible.

On topics as varied as census methods, abortion pills and private school vouchers, GOP leaders who set the agenda on Capitol Hill are signaling they are willing to yield on stands that the White House has said would provoke a veto -- possibly leading to a government shutdown.

"We're going into an election and we have to get our job done," said Elizabeth Morra, spokeswoman for Robert L. Livingston, the Louisiana Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "We are doing everything we can to get the bills passed."

Clearly, the Republicans wish no repeat of their 1995 budget stand-off with President Clinton, which lead to two prolonged government shutdowns and provoked outrage among Americans who depend on federal services and facilities. At that time, Republican leaders hoped voters would support their drive to curtail federal spending, but the strategy backfired and the GOP got blamed for the inconvenience.

What's more, Republicans may have nothing to gain from a budget fight that would draw the spotlight away from the presidential impeachment inquiry that seems certain to spring from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Bowing to White House

So, despite much tough talk beneath the klieg lights, the GOP seems ready to compromise even on items very dear to its conservative base.

"Essentially what [Republicans] are doing is capitulating to the White House," said Stan Collender, a budget analyst with Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm. "It looks as though ideology is less important than getting out of town."

It's not yet certain that the Republican concessions will be sufficient to avoid a confrontation with Clinton, who may find it in his political interest to change the subject from scandal to policy battles.

One "bad sign," Morra said, was that even after Republicans agreed to drop an anti-abortion provision in the agricultural spending bill hotly opposed by the White House, Clinton said he plans to veto the measure, because it doesn't have enough money for farmers.

"They have taken a few steps to meet the president's concerns, but there is still a long, long way to go," White House spokesman Barry Toiv said of the Republican budget concessions so far.

As for whether it's likely that a showdown can be avoided, Toiv said: "We'll see."

With the pre-election recess scheduled for this weekend, Congress is frantically working its way through the 13 spending bills that make up the $537 billion discretionary portion of the federal budget. So far, only four of the bills have been passed by both houses, and Clinton has signed into law only one -- to finance military construction.

Yesterday, the House voted 409-14 to approve a $93 billion measure financing housing, veterans and environmental programs, including $225,000 to help Maryland test the use of poultry litter as fuel. That popular bill, which also includes a long-sought compromise to overhaul the Depression-era public housing laws, is expected to win easy Senate approval and Clinton's signature.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said he expects to complete action on eight spending bills before Congress leaves town. Any bills still outstanding would probably lumped together in a catch-all budget package that would also be sent to the president by the weekend.

Pet priorities

To achieve that goal, many pet priorities are being abandoned by Republicans.

For example, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas told reporters he now expects Congress to approve Clinton's controversial request for $18 billion to meet U.S. obligations to the International Monetary Fund, which has been drained with the global economic crisis.

Armey also said he would drop his demand that the spending bill for the District of Columbia include vouchers to let students attend private schools.

Morra, Livingston's spokeswoman, said Republicans would also be willing to postpone a showdown over Clinton's proposal to use a computer-based method called "sampling" for conducting the 2000 Census. The GOP is vehemently opposed to the change, which would affect congressional redistricting -- and has won on some early court tests of its constitutionality. But Republicans are willing to push that fight six months down the road and have provided half a year's funding for the Census Bureau.

"One of the reasons we are so comfortable with this is that we know we will be back next year with an even larger majority in both the House and Senate," Armey said yesterday, echoing predictions that the GOP is likely to gain seats in next month's election. "Those things that perhaps we don't get done this year we can get done next year."

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