House Republicans last night began discussing the possibility of an across-the-board spending cut as a way out of this fall's budget morass after their plan to delay full payment of tax credits to the working poor was sharply criticized by Democrats and GOP Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
The across-the-board cuts, promoted by House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), drew considerable support last night during a closed-door strategy session of House Republicans, according to participants.
"It's a fair approach. There are no winners and losers. And I don't know of any accounts that couldn't take a small hit," said Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who attended the meeting.
Republican leaders in both houses are searching for ways to finance some of the remaining spending bills without dipping into the Social Security surplus. Congress has finished work on only five of the 13 bills for fiscal 2000, which began last Friday.
With the leadership frustrated in its search for ways to keep overall spending below ceilings that were mandated two years ago, the idea of across-the-board cuts is gaining interest in both the House and the Senate. Nonetheless, many appropriators oppose the approach because it would strip them of control over details of the bills and would cut programs regardless of their relative merit.
"I think it's a bad precedent, though it's certainly an easy way out," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.).
Meanwhile, the House yesterday told its negotiators to resist any provisions that would undermine the environment when they meet with their Senate counterparts to produce a compromise bill to finance the Interior Department. That sets up a fight with the Senate.
By a vote of 218 to 199, the House signaled its opposition to 20 measures, known as "riders," that the Senate has attached to its version of the Interior appropriations bill.
The provisions would block the administration from collecting higher royalties from oil companies, prevent new energy efficiency standards, expand an exemption for fur dealers, allow grazing without environmental review and extend grazing in a Washington recreation area over National Park Service objections. They would also give agencies the right to allow logging and road building in national forests without conducting wildlife surveys.
Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) offered the motion "to instruct conferees" on the Interior bill. Such an instruction is a non-binding resolution that stakes out the House position before it goes to conference with the Senate. The motion supports $10 million in additional funding for the national endowments for the arts and humanities, as well as current limits on mining waste and the elimination of any Senate provisions harming the environment.
Rep. John E. Baldacci (D-Maine) said he hoped the House vote would give its negotiators added leverage once they begin hammering out a compromise with their Senate counterparts. "They end up recognizing [that] the majority of the House feels strongly about this effort," he said.
Much of the floor debate focused on whether to oppose the Senate provision lifting a five-acre restriction on hard-rock mining waste at mill sites. Earlier this year the House voted 273 to 151 to oppose the change, and Dicks said if lawmakers wanted to change the 1872 mining law, "let them do that through the legislative process."
GOP leaders used last night's strategy meeting to exhort their members to support a foreign aid conference report that has been mired in a controversy over spending levels and abortion. Several Republicans oppose the measure because it does not restrict international groups receiving family planning funds, while Democrats object to the bill because they argue that it fails to finance important administration initiatives such as the Middle East peace process.
In a similar session last Friday, according to a participant, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) tried to convince his colleagues that they were jeopardizing the Republican majority by taking such an inflexible stand on family planning.
"How many babies are you going to save in the minority?" he asked them.
President Clinton has vowed to veto the $12.6 billion measure because it provides $1.9 billion less than the president requested. Republican leaders tried to keep the cost of the bill down to appease fiscal conservatives.
Even so, they say, the bill provides ample economic and military aid to Israel and Egypt and funds special initiatives for child survival and international drug control.