Senate OKs last spending bill despite veto threat

Passage limits Clinton's leverage

November 03, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- By a one-vote margin, the Senate passed and sent to the White House yesterday the last of the 13 spending bills that are needed to finance the government, allowing Republicans to claim a small tactical victory.

President Clinton declared that he would veto what he called "a deeply flawed measure," in part because it contains a nearly 1 percent across-the-board reduction in proposed spending for federal programs.

But the bill's passage limits the president's leverage in final budget negotiations for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 by establishing some clear Republican priorities.

Republican leaders say they are positioned to adjourn for the year -- perhaps as early as next week -- without granting Clinton the billions of dollars in new spending that he has been able to extract in past fiscal years.

"We have been dedicated to holding the line on government spending wherever possible, against a large, probably historical institutional resistance to that. So we've done a great job," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said.

Congressional leaders also hope they have hit on a winning Republican issue for the 2000 elections by declaring an end to the government's decades-long practice of borrowing from the Social Security surplus to pay for unrelated programs.

"When the bell tolls, we're going to be able to say to senior citizens, `We didn't touch Social Security,' " said Senate Budget Chairman Pete V. Domenici.

Democrats contend that the Republicans achieved their goal by crafting the spending bill approved yesterday -- a sprawling $314 billion measure to finance labor, education and health programs -- with the fiscal equivalent of bobby pins and baling wire.

"This bill is a catalog of missed opportunities, misguided priorities and mindless cuts," Clinton said.

The nearly 1 percent spending cut, which would only reduce the amount of proposed increases for most programs, is considered so politically perilous that it barely passed, 49-48. Five Republicans -- Sens. Spencer Abraham of Michigan, John Ashcroft of Missouri, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and George V. Voinovich of Ohio -- voted with most of the Democrats against the measure.

Only two Democrats, Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Charles S. Robb of Virginia, backed the bill. Two Republicans, Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and John McCain of Arizona, did not vote.

Besides the 0.97 percent across-the-board cut, which would affect nearly all programs except Medicare and Social Security, the bill includes an 11-month delay in research money for the National Institutes of Health that would save $3.3 billion.

Even with such money-saving devices, Democrats argue that the Republicans exceeded their spending ceiling by $17 billion -- all of which would come from the Social Security surplus. The Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget support that contention.

"They are using $17 billion of Social Security money; that needs to be fixed," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said. "That's really in large measure what these [budget] negotiations are going to be all about."

A rhetorical duel over the temporary use of surpluses in Social Security tax revenue is unlikely to alter voters' perception that Democrats are better friends of the retirement program than the Republicans are, predicted Thomas Mann, a congressional analyst for the Brookings Institution.

"But to the extent that the Republicans were trying to avoid a political disaster, I guess you could say they have achieved some modest success," Mann said.

Republicans are still recovering from the political beating they took in budget clashes with Clinton in 1995 and 1996. Those disputes resulted in two government shutdowns, for which the public largely blamed the Republicans.

In 1997, Clinton and congressional leaders celebrated a bipartisan victory with the passage of the Balanced Budget Act, which led to the elimination of the budget deficit by last year.

But Republican budget-makers failed to complete their spending work on time last year and had to negotiate the entire spending package in a summit with Clinton, in which he held a decisive advantage.

They had to approve an additional $21 billion in spending on Clinton's pet priorities to persuade him to sign the bills that had to be passed before Congress could adjourn ahead of the November elections.

Afterward, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay complained that he and his colleagues had been "stupid" to put themselves in a position where they had such little bargaining power and vowed not to let it happen again.

This year, working with a slender majority in a political climate already colored by the 2000 election campaign, Republican leaders knew they had little chance of scoring a big policy victory -- such as the enactment of their proposed $792 billion tax cut.

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