Congress and the White House worked yesterday to sort out disagreements over key military and foreign aid spending bills that threaten to delay adjournment set for later this week.
Administration officials said the president is likely to veto the $8.4 billion military construction bill, which now eliminates the U.S. contribution toward a $500 million NATO base in Crotone, Italy.
Critics charged the base is no longer necessary in light of the diminished Soviet threat in Europe, but the deletion may be challenged when the bill reaches the Senate floor.
However, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said yesterday he was satisfied with a compromise reached with the House Armed Services Committee on the overall $288.3 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 1991 and would recommend that President Bush accept it, Reuters reported. "I would characterize it as a pretty good deal," he told reporters flying home with him from Paris.
Earlier, Pentagon officials had warned that the president might veto the bill because it contained only $2.9 billion for the Strategic Defense Initiative anti-missile defense system, $1.2 billion less than the administration requested. Cheney indicated the compromise provides slightly more than $3 billion.
The separate defense appropriations bill, on which conferees agreed last weekend, contains several concessions to the administration. Those include $200 million to begin full-scale development of the Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter; $4.1 billion for procurement and testing of the B-2 "stealth" bomber; and funds for the administration's proposed Milstar communications system. Also funded at $163 million is the national aerospace plane, earlier killed by Senate appropriators.
Military spending bill problems appeared almost insignificant compared with the difficulties facing foreign aid legislation. Late yesterday, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) announced he would seek to cut the bill by as much as 29.7 percent -- about $4.6 billion -- to eliminate the need for a gas tax increase being considered by budget negotiators.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who is managing the overall bill on the Senate floor, withdrew it after a day of failed efforts to resolve an impasse over abortion policy. Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) wants to offer an effort to overturn the Senate's support for a ban on aid to groups that provide abortion counseling. Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.) has threatened to lead a filibuster against such a move.
The situation has caught the administration in the middle. Contained in the bill is a provision that would forgive Egypt's $7 billion U.S. military aid debt. Secretary of State James A. Baker III has called the forgiveness essential to hold together the U.S. coalition in the Persian Gulf.
In other action on the foreign spending bill, the Senate affirmed 97 to 1 a $700 million transfer of U.S. military equipment to Israel, rejecting an attempt by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to eliminate the language. Byrd said the transfer measure appeared to set a mandatory floor under the amount of equipment Israel might receive.
After listing other concessions to Israel, Byrd said it was a "fake psychology. . . that any vote against Israel means you're against Israel. . . That is bunk."
But Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), sponsor of the measure, described Israel as "the most reliable ally that we have."
After more than two hours of debate last night, the Senate upheld a 118-year-old law that allows the purchase of mineral lodes found on federal lands for as little as $2.50 an acre.
Although Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) called the law "the biggest scam going in America," the Senate voted to strike a proposed Appropriations Committee amendment to suspend the law on grounds it was not germane to the bill. The vote was 50 to 48, with western senators heavily opposing a change.
Also yesterday, the House cleared compromise versions of three more appropriations bills, leaving seven of 13 spending conference reports to be adopted before adjournment.
The three measures provide $52.2 billion for the Department of Agriculture; $182.2 billion for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education; and $20.9 billion for the Treasury Department, Postal Service and executive office of the president.
The latter legislation includes a 4.1 percent pay hike for federal employees effective Jan. 1, and provisions to overhaul the federal pay system by pegging annual raises to the Employment Cost Index and making geographical adjustments to salaries.
The Labor and HHS bill includes House-passed language prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in cases where the life of the woman would be endangered.
Staff writer Tom Kenworthy contributed to this report.