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Budget Battle Lines Harden on the Hill

The Budget
By George Hager and Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 23, 1999; Page A6

Congress is set to begin a week of partisan bickering today over a budget that Republican congressional leaders expect will provoke a veto showdown with President Clinton later this year when it results in appropriations bills.

Starting this afternoon in the Senate and Thursday in the House, Republicans are scheduled to move separate but similar budgets that seek to give the party a political boost by locking away $1.8 trillion for Social Security and cutting taxes nearly $800 billion over the next 10 years numbers that Republicans say top what Clinton has proposed.

At the same time, these budgets propose to cut a wide range of domestic programs and foreign aid to stick within tight spending limits set in the 1997 balanced-budget agreement.

The cuts are necessary to make room for increases the Republicans want in defense and education spending and to fulfill their pledge not to use funds generated by Social Security taxes for purposes other than Social Security. Until 2001, the budget surplus is projected to consist entirely of the extra Social Security payroll taxes being collected to provide for baby boomer retirements in the next century.

"This is a bulletproof budget in political terms," said GOP political strategist Ed Gillespie. "It locks away every dime of the payroll tax for Social Security and puts Democrats in the position of, if they want to spend more, of advocating" spending it from Social Security. "They're going to have some explaining to do," added Gillespie, an adviser to the presidential explorations of House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio).

Both sides could have some explaining to do this fall if they end up where some analysts and even some lawmakers expect they might: in a modest deal that would dip into Social Security surpluses for some extra spending, coupled with targeted tax cuts aimed at the marriage penalty and other unpopular features of the tax code.

Key Republicans privately admit they will probably break the caps this year, but insist Clinton must be the first to ask, and that it will come at a price. "We have to get something for it," said a senior House Republican, adding that "something" is tax cuts."

Meanwhile, the White House has declared war on the GOP budgets, saying last week they would gut domestic programs. Yesterday, the administration charged the proposals would shortchange national security.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright called the proposed GOP spending levels for the State Department "outrageous and unacceptable," insisting they would "take a meat ax to American leadership" and "slash deeply into the bone and sinew of our programs and ongoing diplomatic and consular operations."

The administration has complained that even at current spending levels, the department is under severe constraints that have forced it to close consulates and trim U.S. representation at diplomatic conferences.

"I want to say to my good friends, where would you have us cut?" Albright said. "The war against drugs? The battle against terror? Our efforts to control the threats posed by loose nukes and the prospect of nuclear expertise being put up for sale to the highest bidder? Support for peace in the Middle East? Bosnia? Ireland?"

Albright noted with irritation that some congressional Republicans have criticized the department for seeking what they regard as insufficient funding for embassy security abroad. But rather than increase the allocation, she said, they are embracing "budget resolutions that would require us to underfund virtually every major program we have."

Republicans were unapologetic. Senate Budget Committee spokesman Robert Stevenson said the GOP budget adds "more funding than the administration for education, national defense, the National Institutes of Health and for veterans' health. So I would ask the secretary, would she have us cut those programs to increase funding at the State Department?"

The administration can do little at this point besides complain, because the budget is an internal congressional document that the president gets to neither sign nor veto. Any vetoes will come only when Congress begins sending Clinton spending bills based on the budget's guidelines.

But despite plans to confront Clinton with stripped-down spending bills late this summer, there is growing doubt that Republicans themselves will be able to stomach the spending cuts necessary to get those bills passed, particularly in the House, where the GOP holds a bare 10-seat majority.

There are signs that some Republicans may not realize how tight the spending constraints are. During an event held to celebrate the GOP budget last week, Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Tex.), a Budget Committee member, said the budget would allow Republicans to provide a pay raise for military personnel. But when asked whether his proposed budget would cover that increase, House Budget Chairman Kasich said it would not.

GOP appropriators have warned they fear a repeat of last fall's devastating budget showdown with Clinton, when the GOP's failure to finish work on most of the spending bills led to negotiations that produced an "omnibus" spending bill wrapping in most of the unfinished measures plus $21 billion in last-minute spending that exceeded the caps.

"The biggest disappointment for the conservative base of the [Republican] party was last year's omnibus appropriations bill," said Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It's going to be very difficult for the Republicans to sell another cap-busting bill to the base of their party."


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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