The House yesterday approved a pay raise for top-ranked federal executives and continued funding for the government through March 31, as Congress appeared to be nearing the end of its year-long confrontation with President Reagan over 1982 spending cuts.
Voting 222 to 194, the House once again ignored its Democratic leadership and agreed to a Republican proposal to give Reagan his "bottom line" demand for about $4 billion of the $8.4 billion in domestic appropriations cuts that he proposed last September as part of a second round of budget reductions.
The cuts were incorporated in a "continuing resolution" to provide funds beyond next Tuesday for those agencies for which Congress has not passed regular appropriations bills. The Republican-controlled Senate was expected to approve the measure without change today. It worked late last night in an attempt to finish, but, even after beating down a series of Democratic amendments to restore money for a variety of social programs, it still faced more Democratic initiatives before final approval is possible.
Approval of a single amendment could throw the bill into a House-Senate conference, posing risks the Republicans were determined to avoid.
As approved by the House, the bill gave Reagan substantially less than he wanted for military foreign aid, but Republicans said they thought he would sign it anyway because of the domestic spending cuts.
"It will go to the president and it will be signed," said Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) in urging the House to approve the GOP proposal, send it to the Senate and get ready to go home for Christmas. The alternative, he reminded wavering members, was to "cancel your airplane tickets."
The bill was a qualified victory for Reagan, who in September had asked for $16 billion in deficit reductions on top of the $35 billion that Congress approved last summer and must seek even larger cuts next year or face budget deficits in excess of $100 billion a year through the end of his term.
But it was a major breakthrough for an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 senior government executives and high-level civil servants whose pay had been frozen at $50,112 since 1979 in many cases.
The bill raises the pay cap and lifts the top salary for senior executives to $58,500, with correspondingly smaller increases down to the middle ranks of GS14s. A new limit of $59,500 would be set for sub-cabinet officers at executive level III. Neither Cabinet secretaries nor members of Congress would receive pay increases.
Pay raises for high-ranking civil servants have been repeatedly proposed and then blocked in the past, most recently last month when the pay raise for them was linked to one for House members, who subsequently rejected it as part of an earlier continuing resolution that wound up getting vetoed by Reagan anyway.
It was that veto, which caused a one-day shutdown of most of the government until emergency funding was approved, that sent Hill Republicans scrambling for a compromise that would satisfy Reagan and avoid another veto confrontation.
The result, worked out in a week of intensive negotiations between Republican leaders and White House officials, roughly doubles the cuts in the vetoed bill by imposing a 4 percent reduction on all domestic appropriations--excluding benefit entitlements, food stamps, general revenue sharing, veterans' health care and law enforcement agencies.
Some of these activities, such as law enforcement, were excluded to win support of conservative Democrats, whose hostility to long-term stopgap funding was also accommodated by having the resolution expire on March 31, rather than Sept. 30, as Republicans originally proposed.
This presumbably keeps up pressure on Congress to pass regular appropriations bills, which Reagan will sign if they fall within spending levels contained in the continuing resolution, according to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).
Reagan's pledge broke what Michel called the "appropriations logjam," and the House later in the day gave final approval to appropriations bills for the Interior Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs and independent agencies. Both bills were trimmed to meet Reagan's spending targets.
Even more important than the conservative Democratic "Boll Weevils" was the support of Conte and moderate GOP "Gypsy Moths," who were lured back into Reagan's camp when Conte, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, succeeded in shielding some social programs like fuel assistance for the poor from heavy cuts.
On the critical vote, only three Republicans--Reps. William Green (N.Y.), Harold C. Hollenbeck (N.J.) and Charles F. Dougherty (Pa.) -- broke with their party. Thirty-six Democrats bolted to join the Republicans. Washington-area members voted along party lines.
The rejected Democratic alternative fell about $1 billion short of the savings in the Republican bill, although it, too, included pay raises for government executives.
Despite Conte's contention that the GOP proposal "maintains our investment in humanity," Democrats assailed it bitterly.
"Go back to your people and tell them you're voting against the children of this country . . . against the handicapped, against aid for education," exclaimed Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.). "We're going to have to stand up . . . or we're going to be run by the president," claimed House Appropriations Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.).
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) also cited government documents indicating that some of the "savings" in the resolution would actually result in higher costs. He said Labor Department figures show that a $120 million cut in the administration of unemployment insurance will cost $1 billion in waste, fraud and abuse and added: "all these cuts are largely phony because they will not reduce the deficit, but will, in effect, result in billions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse according to the administration's own estimates."
Although the House did not raise its own pay it did expand a tax break for members that was approved earlier in the year when Congress voted to lift the $3,000 limit on living expenses that members can deduct for tax purposes, effective next month. The bill makes the new unlimited deductions effective as of last January.