House Republicans yesterday began work on a giant fiscal 2000 labor, health and education measure that roughly matches this year's spending but guts the Clinton administration's education and job-training initiatives and relies heavily on creative budgetary tactics.
The bill, approved by appropriators along party lines, would torpedo President Clinton's plan to add 100,000 teachers to the nation's classrooms and would eliminate funds for Goals 2000, building improvements and a program to help youngsters prepare for college. Instead, the Republicans trimmed and consolidated those funds in a block grant program that has yet to be fully authorized.
With only a week before the start of the new fiscal year and a raft of difficult spending issues to resolve, congressional negotiators focused on many different fronts: The agriculture bill was deadlocked over whether to lift sanctions on Cuba; the defense bill was stalled over the F-22 fighter aircraft; and the foreign operations bill was hung up over international family planning.
The Republicans' biggest challenge, however, is likely to be striking a deal with the Democrats and the White House over the labor, health and education measure--the single largest domestic spending bill. House Republicans asserted yesterday that the measure addresses the nation's most urgent spending needs while fulfilling a GOP pledge not to dip into the Social Security trust fund.
"We are committed, all of us, to stop bleeding Social Security reserves," said Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), the subcommittee chairman who drafted the bill. "That takes some discipline."
But the $315.9 billion bill stands virtually no chance of surviving in its present form, both sides agree, and drew sharp condemnation from congressional Democrats and a veto threat from the president.
Clinton said the bill "is proof that America's highest priority, improving our schools, remains the Republican Congress's lowest priority."
Critics complained that the bill is rife with "gimmicks" to try to skirt the restraints of the 1997 budget agreement and to mask the fact that Social Security surpluses are going to be used to finance some of the spending.
The bill treats $12.5 billion for education, job training and Head Start as "advance spending" that does not count against the 2000 spending cap but instead would be distributed in the first month of 2001. About $1.1 billion of energy assistance for low-income families is declared an "emergency."
The measure also frees additional funds by claiming $3 billion in federal welfare payments the states have not spent. The National Governors' Association complained that Congress is reneging on its commitment to let the states spend that money as they choose.
The bill--which would provide $89.3 billion in discretionary funds to finance agencies, with the remainder earmarked for entitlements--essentially would freeze discretionary spending at this year's level, or about $2.2 billion below the president's request. It would provide $1.1 billion more than Clinton sought for biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health and outspend his plan for community health centers and maternal- and child-care grants to states.
Meanwhile, House and Senate conferees struggled to revive negotiations over a compromise agriculture spending bill, including $8 billion in emergency aid to farmers, after reaching an impasse Wednesday on easing restrictions on food and medicine sales to Cuba. Negotiators rejected a House leadership version of the bill that effectively nullifies the Senate action in the summer to end the decades-old sanctions on Cuba.
Cuba is the only nation in the world for which food sales are under a blanket U.S. prohibition and medical sales are sharply restricted. The GOP leadership's inability to prevail on the Cuba measure--as well as a cross-party disagreement on milk pricing mechanisms--has dashed its hopes that the farm bill could be quickly passed this week.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.