House and Senate Republican leaders yesterday agreed to pump more money into labor, health and social programs, part of an overall budget deal that would bust the spending limits to which Congress and the administration agreed in 1997.
The tentative agreement marked an important breakthrough in how lawmakers will handle the major spending bills Congress must pass in coming weeks to fund the government during the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
For months, congressional Republicans have been struggling to reconcile the appetite for spending among lawmakers with the relatively austere budget limits that were imposed in 1997 when Congress and President Clinton agreed to a plan for reducing the budget deficit.
Yesterday, leaders essentially agreed to bust those restrictions, saying they had little choice but to bow to the reality that lawmakers, the White House and special interests are demanding more spending than the limits allow.
The move means there will be at least $16 billion more for health, education and social programs than would have otherwise been permitted under the 1997 agreement--and billions more for defense and other domestic initiatives. The plan would roughly freeze overall spending at this year's levels.
Although there are many details to be finalized--and legislation to be approved by both houses--the agreement moves Congress closer to Clinton's position about how much money the government should spend next year and lessens the chance of a year-end stalemate that could temporarily shut down the government.
Still, the new plan relies on a number of accounting tactics that Democrats and some Senate Republicans have termed "gimmicks" and "smoke and mirrors."
Spokespersons for the GOP leadership said the plan was a workable compromise that would not involve raiding the Social Security program for more money. Both parties have promised to save Social Security surpluses to shore up the giant retirement program.
"We're making great progress," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "The big thing is trying not to dip into the Social Security surplus, and we're not going to do it."
Crucial to the GOP approach--disclosed after a morning meeting yesterday of Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other leaders--is a bookkeeping decision to try to count a substantial part of the spending for next fiscal year either in the current year or in the following fiscal year.
For instance, after initially planning to spend $7.6 billion for emergency farm relief next year, Senate negotiators have agreed with the House to count most of it against the remaining two weeks of the 1999 fiscal year, according to House and Senate sources.
By doing this, negotiators would be able to spend more money on labor, health and education programs next year without technically violating the rules that otherwise would limit spending. Even then, negotiators will have to make up the rest largely by postponing about $11 billion in new spending until the early months of fiscal 2001.
While both Congress and the administration have made use of this technique of "advance funding" before, critics in both parties have complained that the tactic is being used excessively, to mask Congress's inability to maintain fiscal discipline. And Democrats yesterday questioned the feasibility of trying to get the emergency farm aid and related drought relief out the door in the next week or two.
"They're going to spend $8 billion between a week from Monday and the following Thursday?" asked Scott Lilly, staff director for the House Appropriations Committee Democrats. "That's patently ridiculous."
With Lott conceding earlier this week that the struggle to stay within the spending limits has been lost because of a rash of emergencies and the Kosovo war, Republicans have redefined their mission as protecting the politically sensitive Social Security trust fund.
"We have a commitment to stay out of Social Security and we're trying to honor that," said James Dyer, a senior Republican aide on the House Appropriations Committee.
The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, but so far Congress has cleared only four of the 13 annual spending bills. The White House has issued veto threats against six of the bills largely because of what it deems inadequate funding. Administration officials have urged Congress to reconsider Clinton proposals for expanding available funds by raising the cigarette tax and imposing user fees.