Congress yesterday overwhelmingly affirmed $11.7 billion in spending cuts for this year that were invalidated by the Supreme Court when it threw out a key enforcement provision of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-control law earlier this month.
The budget package, including ratification of a controversial freeze for federal retirees' pensions for the current year, now goes to President Reagan, who is expected to sign it.
By a House vote of 339 to 72 and a Senate voice vote with no dissent, Congress thus passed what had been called a first test of its resolve to meet stringent deficit requirements of the new budget law.
"We're here today to renew our vows," said Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.
But legislative leaders were quick to warn that it was a modest achievement compared to the challenge of larger deficit reductions required for fiscal 1987, and sponsors of the budget law prepared legislation for consideration next week to revise the court-stricken enforcement provisions.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who joined Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) in sponsoring the original law, said the corrective legislation would empower the administration's Office of Management and Budget to implement automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that are required if Congress fails to meet its deficit ceilings.
Gramm-Rudman-Hollings had given the role of implementing cuts to the General Accounting Office. But the Supreme Court held that GAO was a congressional agency and that it was improper to vest it with executive authority to carry out laws. Giving the power to OMB is intended to overcome the court's objections. But it is also expected to run into congressional objections that the change would cede too much power over spending decisions to the executive branch, even though OMB would be acting under some congressional constraints.
Some lawmakers, including Chiles, have suggested a compromise that would transfer spending-cutback authority to OMB for only a year to allow time to prepare a permanent solution and to keep OMB sensitive to congressional scrutiny in the meantime. Others, such as House Majority Whip Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), have suggested giving the final authority for implementing cuts to the president.
As the Supreme Court left it, the law requires Congress to enact spending cuts to reach the deficit targets. Many lawmakers fear the political repercussions of doing so. Many also fear Congress would fail to pass the legislation or that Reagan would refuse to sign it. To reach the deficit target of $144 billion for next year, cutbacks of more than $20 billion -- nearly double the cuts for this year -- could be required a month before this fall's elections.
Difficulties in reaching the target were illustrated as the House approved, 269 to 66, its first nondefense appropriations bill for next year, including $13 billion for the departments of Commerce, Justice and State.
While meeting budget ceilings for long-term spending authority, the bill as originally drafted would add $1 billion more to the deficit than the budget envisions. The House voted 213 to 125 to cut spending authority for all but the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration by 5 percent, as proposed by Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.). The bill would still add several hundred million dollars more to the deficit than was sanctioned by the budget, Frenzel said.
The measure also defies Reagan on several counts, including providing money for the Legal Services Corp., Economic Development Administration and trade-adjustment assistance; cutting his embassy security request from $1 billion to $227 million and refusing to sell small business loan portfolios. The measure also would shut down the Civil Rights Commission, which Democrats say has been rendered meaningless by the administration.
In brief arguments over affirming the fiscal 1986 cuts, which had been imposed originally in March, leaders of both parties treated the cutbacks as ancient history best left undisturbed. "What's done is done," said Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) said it was proper for Congress, "not some philosopher king or chief executioner," to make the cuts official.
Among the few who spoke against the measure, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) contended that Congress was being asked to "ratify an unconstitutional law."