House OKs $390 billion budget plan

Bill includes money for teachers, police, environment, Mideast

`A victory' for Americans

Bipartisan majority completes work on fiscal 2000 budget

November 19, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Concluding weeks of contentious negotiations, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved yesterday a $390 billion spending package that completes budget work for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The vote was 296-135, with a bipartisan majority supporting the far-reaching measure, which includes new money for teachers, police, environmental programs, hurricane relief, parklands and the Middle East peace process.

"This budget is a victory and a hard-won victory for the American people," President Clinton told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey, where he was attending a European security conference.

Also tacked onto the budget package is $12 billion in increased payments to Medicare providers to make up for spending cuts in 1997 that slashed more deeply than Congress had intended.

"It's a good bill," said Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We have a very fair balance in the use of the public money to meet our national objectives."

Final approval in the Senate, expected by this weekend, was delayed because of a parliamentary snarl caused by senators who were angry that their priority spending items had not been included in the final measure.

Much of the delay involved a dispute over milk price policy between Wisconsin senators and those from dairy states in the Northeast.

Also among the disgruntled lawmakers was Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who complained that the White House had blocked his attempt to void a federal court ruling that would limit the practice of mountaintop mining in his home state of West Virginia.

"Fie on the White House! Fie!" shouted Byrd, the senior Democrat in the Senate. "As a result [of White House opposition], thousands of coal miners from West Virginia and throughout Appalachia are facing a bleak and uncertain future."

Byrd's Senate colleagues voted 56-33 last night to approve his proposal overturning the court ruling.

But it was only a symbolic gesture because the House, which has not considered the measure, had already departed Washington for the remainder of the year.

Also awaiting Senate action before Congress adjourns for the year was an $18 billion bill passed by the House that would extend some expiring tax credits and create a tax credit for converting chicken manure into electrical power. Maryland lawmakers say the tax credit could help reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution from chicken manure used as fertilizer.

The budget package represents about two-thirds of the total $600 billion in spending that Congress approves annually. The legislation finances seven federal departments, as well as foreign aid and District of Columbia government.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, was the only member of the state's delegation who did not vote in favor of the measure. Bartlett said, in part, that the bill was larded with pork barrel projects sought by lawmakers.

Despite sometimes-combative rhetoric, this year's version of the annual spending struggle between Clinton and Congress is ending on a more pleasant note than usual.

Neither side was able to achieve major goals at the expense of the other. And with about $30 billion more to spend than last year, Clinton and Republican congressional leaders could claim some success in advancing their priorities.

The president is particularly pleased at having secured money to hire up to 100,000 teachers and 50,000 police officers, to pay delinquent dues to the United Nations, and to buy environmentally sensitive land in New Mexico, the Everglades and the California desert.

Congress added $1.8 billion to fund the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, $110 million to relieve the debts of Third World nations and $839 million to help former Soviet states secure nuclear weapons and materials.

"Message: We're happy," said John Podesta, the president's chief of staff.

Republicans counted as their top achievement their success in restraining growth in government spending to about 3 percent, in part by insisting on an end to the long-standing practice of borrowing money from the Social Security surplus.

"The most important thing that happened is that we didn't dip into the Social Security trust fund," said House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "It changed the way that this town does business, and it probably will put an indelible mark on how this country will see its fiscal and financial future."

But it is not at all certain that Republicans will achieve their goal of leaving the Social Security surplus untouched. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the spending bills would dip into Social Security money for about $17 billion.

But Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, predicted that when those estimates are recalculated early next year to reflect revenue growth caused by the booming economy, the $17 billion shortfall will disappear.

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