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Emergency Aid Squeaks by House

The Budget
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 1999; Page A4

After warding off challenges from the right and the left, the House in a cliffhanger vote yesterday approved nearly $1 billion in emergency aid for Central America and the Caribbean, giving Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) a squeaker victory in the first major challenge of his tenure.

With Democrats opposed to the bill because of what they viewed as unacceptable offsets for the proposed spending package, and GOP conservatives upset because $195 million was not offset, the vote count stood at 205 to 215 when Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) led an intense lobbying effort to bring recalcitrant Republicans into line. The final result was 220 to 211.

"Too close," said senior Appropriations Committee member Ron Packard (R-Calif.).

Although the leadership weathered the initial storm, the aid bill faces a veto threat from a White House opposed to the offsets. The administration has threatened to veto a similar relief bill passed by the Senate late Tuesday.

"Congress has moved forward in this effort, but the narrow margin and the divided vote show there are serious issues to be resolved," White House budget office spokeswoman Linda Ricci said. "This underscores the need to address the issue of offsets and other extraneous issues.

Sources in both the House and Senate said it was unlikely that conferees could finish work on the bill before a scheduled recess this weekend. The two measures have radically different offsets -- cuts in other programs to compensate for the new expenditures -- and the White House finds them equally objectionable. The Senate bill also has a number of legislative riders that the administration opposes.

The $1.2 billion supplemental spending bill passed by the House included $968 million in relief aid for Caribbean Basin countries suffering from catastrophic natural disasters. Damage from Hurricane Mitch last fall killed 9,000 people in Central America and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

In addition, the bill would provide $152 million in aid to farmers hard hit by low prices and declining exports and another $100 million to Jordan to implement the Wye River peace accords. The rest of the money -- $91 million -- is miscellaneous spending, of which the largest chunk is $31 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to replace a lost satellite.

All but $195 million in reimbursement for early armed forces relief efforts in Central America was offset by cuts in other programs over the violent objections of the White House and House Democrats.

Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, offered an amendment to get rid of the "four most reckless elements" in the GOP's offset package: $648 million from "callable capital" held by international development banks to guarantee loans; $150 million to purchase excess plutonium from Russia; $30 million from international food aid programs; and $25 million held by the Export-Import bank to use to counter unfair trade practices by other nations.

"This bill is full of items that will weaken our national security," Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said. "I hate to say this, but I fear the majority party has given in to its isolationist tendencies."

But Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) noted that "we have a problem" staying beneath Congress's mandated budget caps: "We're responding to a true emergency," Young said. "The difference is we're going to pay for it." The Obey amendment failed 201 to 228 on a largely party line vote.

Next came a challenge from the right on an amendment by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) to offset the remaining $195 million in the bill with an additional chunk of callable capital. Conservatives suggested the appropriators, by refusing an offset, were plundering the Social Security Trust Fund.

"If you agree that we should not use Social Security to fund foreign aid spending, you should vote for this amendment," Tiahrt said. The amendment failed 164 to 264, but garnered 153 Republican votes.

Convincing these GOP dissenters to vote for the bill was the leadership's final task, and, in the end all but 11 agreed. For Hastert and his six-vote GOP majority, the victory came on the first vote the leadership has allowed on a controversial bill that it wanted to pass.

Meanwhile, the Senate took up its Republican-drafted budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 and, in a non-binding but significant vote, approved an amendment aimed at blocking Clinton's proposal to invest 15 percent of Social Security funds in the stock market. The vote on the proposal by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) was 99 to 0.

The Senate approved a Democratic-sponsored proposal to increase funding for veterans health care but rejected Democratic efforts to finance Medicare and Social Security from the anticipated surplus.

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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