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Panel Chairmen: GOP Budget Headed for Trouble

The Budget
By George Hager
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 1999; Page A4

Even as Republican congressional leaders were marshaling support for their tough new budget plan yesterday, the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees warned that the proposal could cause serious trouble as Congress begins to try to pass spending bills this spring.

The GOP plan calls for more spending for defense and education at the same time appropriators must stick to strict spending caps that they say will cause wrenching cuts in other programs which both parties support.

Analysts say the fiscal 2000 cap -- $536 billion -- is so tough that it will force Congress to cut at least $9 billion below current spending levels, and more than $20 billion from what it would take to keep all programs even with inflation. At the same time, though, Republicans said yesterday they would add about $16 billion to current defense spending in 2000.

"There's no will for nondefense spending to go down, [but] there's an absolute will for defense spending to go up," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "I think we can stick with the caps if we have the votes to do so. I'm not sure Congress can take the actions necessary to live within them."

"I can live with the caps," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.). "Can 218 members of the House live with the caps?" Young asked, referring to the majority necessary to pass legislation. "We'll see."

If living under the caps renders a significant number of Congress's 13 annual spending bills either too lean to pass the House and Senate or too thin to avoid a presidential veto, appropriators warn, GOP leaders could find themselves right back in the same sort of political breakdown they endured last year.

Then, they were unable to pass or get President Clinton to sign eight of the bills. Year-end negotiations produced an omnibus bill that got Congress out of town but at a price they vowed not to pay again this year: about $21 billion in emergency spending for defense and domestic programs backed by both parties.

Young said the same scenario "could happen" again this year, and Stevens agreed: "It might mean another one of those omnibus bills, which I abhor," he said.

Despite appropriators' fears, however, leaders worked the rank-and-file in back-to-back meetings in the Senate and House yesterday afternoon to secure support for the budget plan, which is scheduled for committee action next week.

Leaders said the caps on spending, other than for entitlement programs and interest on the debt, which were agreed to in the 1997 budget deal, were what helped produce a balanced budget in the first place, and they insisted they would not break them. "We are going to maintain fiscal discipline," said House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) after he explained his budget proposal to colleagues. "The conference was very pleased with that."

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said there would be no repeat of last year's year-end spending frenzy. "We broke that fiscal discipline last year; we don't plan on that happening again."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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