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Central American Aid Snagged in Debate

The Budget
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 1999; Page A6

A bill containing $1 billion in emergency relief for Central America came to the Senate floor yesterday as an unfortunate hostage in the emerging budget debate between President Clinton and the Republican Congress over domestic spending priorities.

The bill provides $1.8 billion in supplemental appropriations for fiscal 1999, but faces a Clinton administration veto threat because it is offset with "unacceptable reductions" in other government programs, the White House budget office said.

In addition, the administration objected to more than a half-dozen unrelated "riders" attached to the bill, among them measures giving states unrestricted use of $240 billion from last year's tobacco industry settlement and delaying rulemaking for the mining and oil industries.

After several hours of inconsequential debate, a visibly irked Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) reminded senators that "this is an emergency measure," and urged them to quicken its consideration.

"Either we get it done now," for completion by the Easter recess that will begin March 26, he added, "or we might as well forget about it."

Late yesterday, John Czwartacki, the spokesman for Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), said senators would resume debate today, but defer all votes until Tuesday.

This scheme could possibly allow a final vote on a joint Senate-House measure by the end of next week, but the administration remains adamantly opposed not only to the Senate's collection of offsets, but also to a completely different package of offsets in the House's $1.4 billion bill.

Asked yesterday about veto possibilities, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart insisted that Central America's needs met "the classic test of emergency spending" and should not have to be offset at all.

"This is aid that's needed immediately; it certainly couldn't be planned for, and is nonrecurring," Lockhart told reporters. "We think it's time to get the politics out of this, move forward, do this on an emergency basis."

The quarrel over offsets has become a prologue for budget battles to come as the administration and Congress argue over funding priorities as they try to keep overall spending below congressionally mandated budget caps.

The Senate emergency bill's three biggest chunks of money are $977 million for Central American hurricane damage, $308 million in aid to farmers and $100 million in peacekeeping funds for Jordan.

The administration objected to a long list of proposed GOP offsets, among them: $350 million in anti-poverty assistance; $113 million in funds to deal with "Y2K" computer problems; $75 million taken from anti-terrorism programs at U.S. embassies and $65 million from immigration and border programs.

The administration also listed "objectionable riders," including measures that delay environmental rulemaking at hard-rock mining sites on federal lands, and that stall consideration of new methods of royalty collection from oil companies working under federal lease.

In an early bipartisan rebuff to another administration objection, the Senate voted 71 to 29 to kill an amendment requiring states to spend half of their tobacco settlement money on antismoking education, public health and tobacco farmer transition assistance.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) echoed the administration, arguing that the federal government had a claim on the settlement because much of it was recovered Medicaid expenditures.

But opponents said the amendment needlessly intruded on states' prerogatives. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) called it "an outrageous power grab" aimed at telling states "how to spend their money. This has got to stop."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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