Conservatives Hogtie House Agriculture Bill
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 1999; Page A10
Conservatives' fury over what they said was excessive spending forced House leaders to pull a $60.8 billion agriculture spending bill from the floor yesterday in an early sign that the Republicans' strategy for enacting their budget is in deep trouble.
Constrained by tight limits on government spending, GOP leaders are attempting to pass what would normally be non-controversial spending bills, such as agriculture, while buying time to figure out how to pay for larger domestic spending measures.
But renegade conservatives complained that the leadership was ducking its responsibility to impose fiscal discipline, and they offered more than 100 amendments over the past two days to block passage of the farm bill to make their point.
Unable to break the stalemate, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) put off further action on the bill, as well as a pending bill to pay for the legislative branch, until the Republicans could regroup after the Memorial Day recess.
Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a leader of the floor revolt, said he was trying to ensure that Congress does not repeatedly dip into the Social Security surplus to fund government activities. During the past eight months, Congress has twice turned to the surplus to finance more than $30 billion of "emergency" spending.
"It's time to start reestablishing confidence with the public, rather than tearing it down," Coburn said. "When we have a [workable] strategy, I'll quit."
Hastert attempted to be concilatory during a GOP conference meeting yesterday morning, saying that Coburn would be allowed ample latitude to offer his amendments, while also pleading for Republican unity on the spending bills.
But House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) was considerably tougher, saying Coburn and his colleagues were undermining the GOP's strategy and threatening the entire appropriations process by delaying passage of the smaller spending bills.
"This was supposed to be the easiest appropriations bill to pass," said Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "If they can't do that, after spinning around for two days, it spells trouble for doing anything this year."
White House budget director Jacob "Jack" Lew warned that the Republicans' strategy for enacting their budget was "a blueprint for chaos" that inevitably would lead to another late-year showdown with the administration over spending priorities.
"The fact of the matter is that Congress is considering a budget that severely underfunds critical [social] programs," Lew said in a speech at the Brookings Institution. "We have been down this road before and we know where it leads."
The GOP budget plan, which boosts defense spending while cutting domestic funds to stay within the 1997 balanced budget agreement, threatens cuts in spending for programs such as veterans health, embassy security, drug enforcement and the National Park Service, according to Clinton budget officials.
"These are deep cuts from current levels of funding and step backwards into the past," Lew said.
Lew said that, for now, the administration has no interest in negotiating a change in the budget agreement to lift the spending ceiling and use more of the surplus to finance domestic programs. Instead, he urged the Republicans to reconsider Clinton proposals for raising additional revenue through an increased tobacco tax and higher government user fees, or saving billions more by approving another round of military base closures. The Senate yesterday voted against more base closures.
While the House struggled with the first fiscal 2000 spending bill to reach the floor, Senate appropriations subcommittees approved a $21.2 billion bill covering energy and water programs and a $48.9 billion transportation measure.
However, Senate appropriations leaders say they are in the same fix as their House counterparts in trying to write 13 annual spending bills that stay within the spending caps while attracting sufficient Republican and Democratic support to pass.
Most appropriators agree there isn't enough money to go around without an agreement to alter the spending caps. House and Senate appropriators have adopted plans that would leave bills covering education, the environment and other domestic programs $24 billion below this year's levels and more than $30 billion below the administration's request.
GOP leaders have basically decided to allocate ample funds to get a handful of bills, including agriculture, defense and military construction, through Congress this spring, while leaving the tougher, underfunded bills for later.
But before yesterday's floor fight, a handful of House GOP moderates warned the leadership that the current spending allocations are unrealistic. Now conservatives are saying the same thing, though they prefer to cut spending across the board rather than increase it.
"Clearly this is not a strategy that is going to work for all 13 bills," said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a fiscal conservative. "We need to do some real soul searching for what is our exit strategy, what is our end game?"
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