GOP agrees to $1 billion more for education But conflicts continue on that and other issues

October 14, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans yesterday acceded to President Clinton's demands for more than $1 billion in new elementary education funding, but serious divisions remain over how that money will be spent.

Protracted budget negotiations bogged down again last night, not only over education issues but also over a laundry list of differences, from contraceptive coverage to a road through the Alaska wilderness.

"Not tonight, but maybe tomorrow morning," a weary White House chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, told reporters. "We're not making as much progress as either [side] would have liked."

Negotiations slowed under partisan fire, as Republicans charged that Democrats only wanted to spend money to prop up federal education bureaucracies.

"It isn't a question of who is willing to spend what amount of money on education," said House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas. "The difference is who will spend the money on what under whose management decisions."

Meanwhile, Democrats accused the GOP of blatant incompetence. Lawmakers have been forced to craft a huge spending package after the GOP-led Congress failed to pass most of the 13 spending bills necessary to keep the government running.

"As I've said many times before, this is the worst Congress that's ever been in the building," snapped House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "They have not done their work, and now they want to get everything done in one bill in the last five minutes."

Republicans approved the money for Clinton's proposal to hire up to 100,000 new teachers and reduce the class sizes of first- through third-graders. But they insisted that local school boards be given the flexibility to spend that money on new teachers or on new instructional materials, teacher training or teacher-competency testing.

Democrats insisted the Republican proposal would create such a large loophole that local school districts could squander federal funds on local administrative costs with no guarantee that one new teacher would be hired.

And they continued to insist that Republicans also pay for a proposal to subsidize school construction and repair nationwide.

"We want both," Gephardt said during a Democratic rally at a Silver Spring elementary school. "If you get the money for the teachers, where are they going to teach?"

Said Clinton: "We now have to decide as a people -- not just because it's three weeks from an election, but because it's a very momentous time in our country's history -- what we are going to do with this moment of prosperity and whether we are going to fritter it away or build on it, whether we are going to be divided and distracted or focused on our children and our future."

Republican leaders had been optimistic Monday that Congress could wrap up the budget and recess by tomorrow for the fall campaign season. By last night, that optimism was slipping. Virtually every difficult issue had yet to be resolved.

The budget deal, which could top $500 billion, may include as much as $22 billion in "emergency spending," including $8 billion for economically stricken farmers, billions more for troops in Bosnia, funds to repair computers facing technical collapse Jan. 1, 2000, beefed-up embassy security and Republican priorities such as missile-defense testing.

That money would come from this year's budget surplus, which is expected to reach $71 billion. Clinton has repeatedly pledged to rope off that surplus until Congress agrees to a long-term fix for the Social Security system, and had vowed to veto any election-year tax cut that would dip into that surplus.

"Everything that's not offset [with budget cuts] is out of the surplus," said Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "That's not politics. That's the unvarnished truth."

Negotiators moved toward breaking the impasse over the 2000 census, but their proposal angered the rank and file of both parties. Clinton and congressional Democrats have insisted that the nation's traditional head count be augmented by statistical sampling to remedy what they believe to be chronic undercounting of minorities.

Republicans vehemently oppose that proposal, saying it would violate the Constitution's prescription of an actual head count and could be subjected to political maneuvering. It could also bolster Democratic political fortunes by counting more of the party's core voters.

Bargainers are moving toward punting on the issue. The Commerce, State and Justice departments would be given enough money to last through March 15. The census is conducted by the Commerce Department. The delay would give the Supreme Court time to decide whether statistical sampling would pass constitutional muster, a decision that should help resolve the impasse.

Rep. Harold Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who heads the subcommittee that oversees those departments, criticized the deal as "a monstrosity. It's insane."

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