Congress nearing deal on budget Republicans moving toward Clinton plan

shutdown is averted

October 13, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congressional and White House negotiators moved toward breaking their logjam yesterday, pledging to complete a budget deal by today even as they squabbled over spending priorities with elections three weeks away.

Two weeks into the government's new fiscal year, Congress was again forced to pass a short-term funding extension to keep the government running through tomorrow. It was the third such stopgap resolution to be approved since September.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said that they will have a bill ready for the president's expected signature by tomorrow and that Congress would likely recess on Thursday. But House Democrats said negotiations might stretch through the week.

"If we brought this package to the [House] floor as is, it would blow sky high," said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Clinton urged Republicans to embrace his education priorities, while Republicans accused Democrats of stretching out the budget impasse for political gain. Democrats believe the longer they can keep Congress debating favorable issues, such as education, the more points they can score with voters weary of scandal.

"I know there's an election coming, but members of Congress can return home to campaign knowing that they put progress ahead of partisanship on the important issue of education," Clinton said. "We need 21st-century schools where teachers can teach and students can learn."

Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, said: "The president is using the education issue because it's a popular issue that hits home with the American people."

Democrats sense that they have the political advantage. With congressional elections near, Republicans are eager to leave Washington and hit the campaign trail.

Recent polls indicate that the public is angry at the way the Republican-led Congress has handled the president's potential impeachment. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday showed that Congress' approval rating had slipped since Thursday, when the House approved an impeachment inquiry. Late last month, 52 percent of Americans polled said they approved of how Congress was doing its job. By the weekend, the figure had slipped to 45 percent, while Clinton's job approval rating inched up, from 63 percent to 67 percent.

Sixty-two percent said they disapproved of how Republicans in Congress are handling the impeachment issue.

"Right now, there's no reason to vote Democrat," insisted Frank Luntz, a Republican political strategist. "But if Republicans come across as too strident, we could see a voter backlash."

Democrats say they can deliver a one-two punch by hammering their opponents for "short-changing" education -- specifically, by resisting Clinton's proposal to pay for up to 100,000 new teachers while subsidizing school construction and repair.

"Republicans are playing the usual 'pretend you are a Democrat for a day' on education," Obey said.

Republicans say they are determined to keep that from happening and that to defuse the budget issue, they know they must compromise with the president.

President driving agenda

Remarkably, a president facing only the third formal impeachment inquiry in history is calling the shots in Congress. Republicans have indicated that they will likely fund many of Clinton's education initiatives, as well as a $7 billion farm rescue package.

Of the 13 annual spending bills, two have been signed by the president. Four others have cleared the Republican-majority Congress. Seven bills have not passed Congress and will have to be folded into the omnibus spending package that is near completion.

Republican concessions

"We have no alternative" but to give in to his demands, conceded Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We do have an election coming in three weeks. These people up for election have to get home."

Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House, argued that Clinton has been disengaged from his own (( policy proposals all year, distracted by scandal and personal concerns. Only when Congress was set to go home did Clinton re-emerge -- to great effect, DeLay conceded.

"Even though he doesn't lift a finger to do anything, he can put his finger around the pen that vetoes" the spending package, DeLay said. "And we realize that."

Republican leaders say they were particularly irked that Clinton dispatched his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, to negotiate with them yesterday, while the president flew to New York to raise money for Rep. Charles E. Schumer, who is challenging Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato for D'Amato's seat. Schumer is one of the senior Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether to draft articles of impeachment against the president.

Lott said: "We have sort of a part-time president and a full-time fund-raiser."

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