Next year's $14 billion surplus spent, Congress $5 billion short

House majority whip acknowledges `we always knew we'd spend it'

August 07, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tom DeLay, the House Republican whip, acknowledged yesterday that the Republican-led Congress has effectively spent next year's projected $14 billion budget surplus and is still struggling to find enough money to pay for next year's government spending.

In an interview, DeLay said Republican leaders recognized early this year that they lacked enough votes in their own party to approve spending cuts deep enough to meet the target set under the 1997 Balanced Budget Act.

That target is $16 billion below the amount spent on federal programs this year. Thus, DeLay said, the Republicans decided that borrowing from next year's anticipated surplus of $14 billion was the obvious way out.

"We always knew we'd spend the $14 billion surplus," the Texas Republican explained.

Nearly one-third of the surplus has been earmarked for conducting next year's census. Another third would finance the proposed Republican tax cut next year. And $4 billion remains in the pot for spending bills not yet acted upon by the House, DeLay said.

Even counting the surplus, Republicans are still $5 billion short of the total they expect to need for the spending bills. And they haven't yet figured out how to pay for an additional $7 billion emergency farm-aid package approved this week by the Senate.

"We're going to have to give more money to the farmers whether we want to or not," DeLay said.

But as his fellow lawmakers left town for their monthlong recess, DeLay, by many accounts the de facto leader of the House, put the most positive spin on the squeeze.

DeLay said the principal Republican goal of the fall would be to finish work on all 13 spending bills, without having to dip into next year's projected Social Security surplus of $161 billion. That way, he said, Republicans will enter the inevitable end-of-the-year negotiations with President Clinton armed with a budget that spends every available cent according to their priorities.

"If he wants to do what he's been doing over the last four years and say, `No, I want to spend all that, and I want more,' then the more has to come from somewhere," DeLay said. "Where's it going to come from?"

The likelihood, he said, is that Clinton would be forced to "spend the Social Security surplus, something we won't do."

The president asserted yesterday that the Republicans' goal was to "raid the Social Security surplus to pay for huge tax cuts and a risky economic scheme."

`Cynical and irresponsible'

"This really troubles me," Clinton said, "because for the last two years, they have promised the American people they would work with us to save Social Security first. I can think of nothing more cynical and irresponsible."

Clinton vowed again to veto the $792 billion tax cut the Republicans passed Thursday. He argued that the measure is risky because it relies on the appearance of a $1 trillion non-Social Security surplus over the next 10 years.

Projections of that surplus are based on presumptions that the economy will continue growing at a robust rate and that the spending cuts required by the Balanced Budget Act will be made.

DeLay's acknowledgment that Congress cannot meet even this year's spending-cut target might strengthen Clinton's argument.

The Republicans' budget problems are even worse than DeLay described, said Robert D. Reischauer, who was head of the Congressional Budget Office when the Democrats controlled Congress, because they have been keeping a set of double books. One is based on the CBO's budget estimates, the other on a set of estimates developed by the White House.

They pick whichever number in each case best suits their purpose, Reischauer said.

Moving the money around

"This is a moving strategy," DeLay acknowledged. "We're moving money around and trying to make things work."

So far, the House has passed 11 of the 13 spending bills that finance most of the government; the Senate has passed nine. In all but three cases, differences between the House and Senate versions have not yet been resolved.

Still awaiting action in both chambers is the largest and most contentious of the spending bills, the one that pays for programs in the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

Although the Republicans are behind schedule, DeLay said, they will not repeat last year's mistake of putting off action on the spending bills so long that they end up negotiating the whole budget with Clinton at once.

Last year, they were forced to accept $21 billion in new spending that Clinton had demanded as his price for signing the legislation.

"When you take all the accounts and throw them in a pot and go down to the White House and cut a deal, that means we've lost all leverage with the president," DeLay said. "It was stupid. We're not going to do that again."

Pub Date: 8/07/99

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