Even as he struggles to disentangle himself from the mess in Kosovo, President Clinton is setting up the congressional Republicans for another end-of-session rout. And the supreme irony is that the Republicans are helping him a lot more than Slobodan Milosevic is.
In the midst of the Kosovo negotiations last week, Clinton took time out to jab the House Republicans for their inability to bring up two scheduled spending bills -- for Congress and the Agriculture Department -- before they left town for the Memorial Day break.
The bills had to be pulled back because of differences within the House Republican Conference. The underlying problem is that the spending caps set in place by the balanced budget agreement of 1997 -- the deal that produced the projected $100 billion surplus this year -- are pinching too tightly for political comfort.
The obvious solution is to lift the caps slightly, while maintaining overall budget discipline and avoiding cuts that are politically and substantively damaging. Instead of doing that, both President Clinton and the GOP congressional leadership have opted for a game of charades, which Republicans are bound to lose. It's hard to understand why the GOP is so eager to play into Clinton's hands.
Clinton's February budget called for government to spend about $30 billion over the amounts set forth in the five-year deal he signed on to in 1997. He said he would pay for it by raising revenue, chiefly through a 55-cent-a-pack cigarette tax, and some offsetting spending cuts. Realistically, that tax hike is very unlikely; Republicans want to cut taxes, not raise them.
But Clinton is saying he won't acquiesce to raising the budget caps at least until Congress has acted on his "priorities" of Social Security and Medicare reform.
You have to wonder how serious those "priorities" are. The Social Security plan Clinton put forward back in February does not pretend to meet the long-term costs of baby-boom retirements. And his Medicare reform, promised imminently, will -- if congressional Democrats have their way -- stress sweeteners such as coverage of prescription drugs, rather than cost-saving measures.
While Clinton has constructed a politically safe position for his party, Republicans are twisting in the wind. The conservatives who dominate the GOP Conference are insisting that the caps be preserved. To underline that, they engineered a vote before Memorial Day on a "lockbox" scheme that is supposed to guarantee that not a dollar of the current Social Security surplus will be spent for anything else. A longtime Republican budget writer describes this legislation as "a piece of trash," cheap symbolism that is doomed to fail if put to the test.
But the Republican budget hawks believe the "lockbox" will reinforce the spending caps. After passing the lockbox, they prevented House Speaker Dennis Hastert from bringing up the two relatively innocuous spending bills to drive home their message that they will not bend.
Rep. John Edward Porter, the Illinois Republican who heads the Appropriations subcommittee that handles the biggest domestic spending bill, funding the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services, told me that unless the caps are adjusted soon by $13 billion to $15 billion -- less than one percent of the projected budget for 2000 -- Republicans will find themselves once again in an intolerable situation.
Hastert has staked his reputation on getting all the appropriations bills passed by Oct. 1, when the government fiscal year begins. If the caps remain in effect as the deadline approaches, Porter said, "the bill I will have to write will not pass the House." Democrats, who are only six votes short of a majority, will find more than enough Republicans to reject the kind of cuts needed to stay under the caps. "Denny [Hastert] knows that," Porter said, "and he is a pragmatic man. But the majority of the Republican Conference does not agree."
When that impasse develops, Porter said, the GOP leadership will be forced into a final-hours negotiation with Clinton -- just as happened in 1998 -- "and spending will go through the roof." Last year, when Republicans couldn't pass the appropriations bills on time, Clinton used those end-of-the-session summit talks to berate the GOP for balking at his proposal for hiring 100,000 teachers. Republicans yielded, but not before the issue cost them dearly in some closely contested House races.
"My worst nightmare," Porter said, "is a repeat of '98. If we put the president in the driver's seat again, we are fools. But I'm afraid that is where we're headed."