Miscalculations on Capitol Hill

Republicans: Clinton, not congressional GOP, holds upper hand on spending bills.

September 28, 2000

REPUBLICANS IN Congress still can't put their act together. The House as much as conceded the point Tuesday when it approved a stopgap measure to keep government agencies going through Oct. 6. A deadline of Oct. 1 -- the start of Washington's fiscal year -- had been looming.

GOP leaders have even more trouble admitting that President Clinton's ability to get what he wants increases every day the budget impasse persists.

That's a harsh pill for the GOP to swallow, particularly in a tight presidential campaign. Members of Congress want to leave town ASAP, so they can run for re-election full time -- but not if it means a deadlock over the budget.

That would remind voters of the 1995 government shutdown blamed on the Republican majority in Congress. Cries of another "do-nothing Congress" could hurt GOP chances in November.

Much of the blame lies with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who decided to ram through appropriations bills in pairs, with little or no floor debate and no chance to offer amendments. That strategy blew up last week, when the Senate rejected one spending bill by a whopping 69-28. Look for a new approach that includes late-night sessions, debates and amendments on gun control and other side issues.

Even if House and Senate Republicans can cobble together spending bills that pass both chambers, they haven't figured out how to overcome President Clinton's veto threats. Increasingly, some Hill leaders concede they will have to meet Mr. Clinton's demands for higher spending on domestic programs, modest tax cuts and removal of nearly all items on the Republicans' priority list.

It's a frightful bind for the GOP in Congress. It could have been avoided, perhaps, if Mr. Lott hadn't adopted a leisurely pace that has seen the 2000 Senate spend the fewest days in session in 44 years. Or if House leaders hadn't tried to force their agenda down Mr. Clinton's throat.

They soon could be paying for their miscalculations.

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