Budget deal reached, as Clinton agrees to 0.38% cut in spending

Congressional leaders plan House vote today on $385 billion package

November 18, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders planned a House vote today on a final budget bill after President Clinton agreed to an across-the-board cut in government spending despite having earlier called such reductions "mindless."

By settling on a 0.38 percent reduction in spending, negotiators apparently resolved the last major issue holding up agreement on a $385 billion package that will complete the budget for fiscal year 2000, which began Oct. 1.

Among the last bargains struck last night was that federal managers would have enough flexibility in applying the across-the-board cut so that no single program would be reduced by more than 15 percent.

"Divided government came together and shook hands today for the American people," House Republican leaders declared in a statement issued late last night.

In fact, there has not yet been a handshake. The White House said it would withhold formal approval on the spending measure until today to give budget officials time to study it line by line.

Anticlimactic conclusion

But House and Senate Democratic leaders announced earlier yesterday that they were generally pleased with the budget bargain.

"Democrats in our caucus expressed great satisfaction with our negotiators, because we feel as if our goals have been achieved, and we feel very good about our accomplishments," said Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle.

The apparent budget agreement brings an anticlimactic conclusion to a contentious and highly partisan year in which the rhetoric was often sharper than actual disagreements.

Indeed, the White House and Republican congressional leaders have practically dueled themselves to a draw: Both sides can claim small victories on their priorities, but each had big dreams checkmated by the other.

Included in the final spending measure is new money for teachers and police, foreign aid and late United Nations dues sought by the president.

GOP gains

In return, Republicans won more local control of the money for teachers and a ban on the use of U.N. funds for groups that advocate abortion.

Republicans are also claiming that they have been able to hold new spending low enough to end the 3-decades-old practice of borrowing from the Social Security surplus, but Democrats dispute that claim.

"I'm worried" that the Social Security funds will be spent, said House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt. Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office have said that the budget numbers might come up billions of dollars short.

At least two regional issues continued to thwart Congress' goal of finishing in time to adjourn for the year this week:

Sen. Robert C. Byrd's efforts to nullify a federal court ruling that would curb mountaintop mining in his home state of West Virginia, and to make sure the practice can continue throughout Appalachia. White House officials have threatened to veto any bill with Byrd's amendment, because they say it would undermine environmental protections. The Senate's senior Democrat is pushing hard for a compromise.

A dispute over milk pricing that pits lawmakers from dairy states in New England against those from Wisconsin.

The president's concession to Republican demands for an across-the-board cut in spending for most federal programs caused dissension within Democratic ranks that also delayed a final agreement yesterday.

Clinton, who was traveling in Turkey, tentatively agreed to the across-the-board cut of 0.38 percent in a telephone conversation early yesterday with House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

The amount of savings is relatively small -- $1.3 billion out of a $1.8 trillion budget.

But, in differing ways, Republicans and Democrats have responded to the symbolism of the cut.

For Republicans, the cut is meant to show their determination to do whatever is necessary to honor their pledge not to borrow from the Social Security surplus.

"It's a small gesture to make sure that we stay away from dipping into the Social Security Trust Fund," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Democrats had a hard time swallowing Clinton's apparent about-face on the issue. He vetoed a spending bill that included a nearly 1 percent across-the-board cut on the grounds that it was poor budget policy.

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