Congress adjourns as Senate approves budget

Tax-cut measure also goes to Clinton

both sides claim victory

November 20, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congress adjourned for the year last night after the Senate gave final approval to a $390 billion measure that completes the budget for the fiscal year that began seven weeks ago.

Before they left town, the senators paired the spending bill with a tax-cut measure to produce a total package full of enough pet projects to allow months of intensely partisan bickering to be briefly put aside. Both measures now go to President Clinton for his signature.

The sweeping budget package, approved 74-24, provides money for teachers, police, parklands, farm aid and Medicare providers. It also pays U.S. dues to the United Nations, bars the use of that money for groups that advocate abortion and forgives debts owed by poor nations.

As a late bonus, the budget legislation also incorporates a measure that would grant to satellite television companies the same rights that cable companies have to beam local news, sports, weather and other broadcast programming to their customers.

"We have proved that when we work together, we can get our work done," House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois said in summing up the conclusion of the congressional session.

The Senate also voted 95-1 for an $18 billion measure that would extend expiring tax credits, including a lucrative business break for research and development and a protection against penalties for families whose tax liability is wiped out by the $500-a-child credit.

One provision of that bill expands Medicaid coverage to include workers with disabilities. At present, the 8 million Americans who receive disability benefits through Social Security would lose those benefits and health coverage provided by Medicaid if they take jobs.

If only 1 percent of them take advantage of the chance to keep Medicaid benefits, advocates say, the program would pay for itself through savings in disability payments.

"No longer will disabled Americans be left out and left behind," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "This is an act of courage, an act of community and an act of hope for the future."

The final grab-bag bills were also sweetened by billions of dollars earmarked for pork barrel projects in individual legislators' districts.

According to Citizens Against Government Waste, a private watchdog group, the total for pork barrel projects approved by this Congress -- $14.6 billion, even before the bills approved yesterday are included -- will easily exceed the previous record of two years ago.

"It's wasteful, egregious, pork barrel spending," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the only Republican to vote against the budget measure. "I think the system has lurched out of control."

McCain, a Republican presidential candidate who has waged a personal crusade against pork barrel spending, had to race back to Washington from the campaign trail to avoid missing the vote.

The vote had earlier been scheduled for 1: 30 a.m. today. After McCain learned that the vote had been rescheduled for 5 p.m. yesterday, he had to charter a plane to arrive in time.

Because of his attacks on spending, "I was really worried when we landed in Washington and I heard they were holding the vote," McCain said after arriving 40 minutes late. He said he was relieved that the Senate was waiting for other tardy members as well.

Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes were among the vast majority of senators who voted for both the budget and tax measures.

President Clinton and congressional leaders from both parties all claimed they had done a good job in advancing their respective priorities. But in many cases, Republicans and Democrats had dueled to a draw.

Clinton asserted in an interview published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that his "biggest victory" on the budget was "stopping the $792 billion tax cut" that Republicans passed by a margin so small they could not override his veto.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi argued yesterday that Republicans deserve more credit "for keeping the Clinton administration and the Democrats in the House and the Senate under some modicum of control."

"If they had their way, they would have spent more, raised taxes and increased regulations across the board," Lott added.

The Republicans blocked Clinton proposals to provide prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries and to raise the federal tax on cigarettes. As their major achievement, Republicans note the approval of a budget that for the first time in three decades does not borrow money from the Social Security surplus.

But Democrats -- and McCain -- dispute that claim, contending that the Republicans used $43 billion worth of accounting gimmicks to reach its bottom line. One of the many such devices was to declare routine spending to be emergencies.

"For example, they have decided now that they are going to declare Head Start to be an emergency," said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "It has only been on the books since 1965."

Feuding about money represents a return to normality for a Congress that began extraordinarily with an impeachment trial. Clinton and most Republican leaders have gone to great lengths to put that tumultuous event behind them.

"Was that this year?" Lott said jokingly when asked about the lingering effects of the impeachment trial. "I think that it didn't have a lot of hangover in the Senate."

When Congress returns to Washington in late January, the lawmakers expect to find the rest of the country preoccupied by the presidential campaign.

"I'm kind of looking forward to that," said House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas.

But the Senate guaranteed itself some trouble items to return to. Among them is the dispute over dairy prices that held up a vote on the final spending measure for at least a day.

Pub Date: 11/20/99

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