House Republican leaders barely overcame strong resistance from Democrats and from antiabortion forces in their own party yesterday to approve a $12.6 billion foreign aid bill that cuts funding sought by the Clinton administration.
The bill drew sharp criticism from Democrats and a veto threat from the White House because it would provide $1.9 billion less than President Clinton requested and contains nothing to help implement the 1998 Wye River Middle East peace accords. The measure also was attacked by opponents of foreign aid and by abortion foes, who were upset by the exclusion of abortion-related restrictions on U.S. aid to international family planning groups.
But House leaders prevailed by a vote of 214 to 211, after warning their members that a setback would seriously undermine Republicans' strategy of blaming Clinton for "raiding" Social Security surpluses if he insists on more spending.
"We're not going to break Social Security," declared Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations foreign aid subcommittee. "We're going to cut foreign aid below the president's request, cut foreign aid below last year."
The Senate has yet to take up the final version of the foreign operations bill, which represents a compromise of two different versions previously approved in each chamber.
Even as they overcame the foreign aid obstacle, GOP leaders continued to struggle with the larger problem of passing the remaining spending bills without breaking their pledge not to dip into Social Security. A new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of House and Senate spending action issued yesterday shows that Congress is on track to use $15 billion to $18 billion of the retirement program's surpluses.
Republicans dispute the study's assumptions and insist that by the time they complete the process this fall, overall spending for fiscal 2000 will stay within prescribed limits and Social Security surpluses will be left unscathed. Republicans are considering a plan for an across-the-board spending cut of 2.7 percent or more to stay within those limits.
That proposal, favored by House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), was praised as fair and relatively simple to implement during a meeting of the House Republican Conference late Monday.
Yesterday, however, the plan was attacked by Democrats and White House officials--as well as some GOP members of the Appropriations Committee--who said it could lead to devastating cuts in education, health, transportation and other domestic programs.
The critics noted that if defense or other programs are exempted from the cuts on security grounds, the cuts in other domestic programs would be much greater. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) claimed that domestic programs could be slashed by as much as 14.4 percent if defense and military construction bills are excluded, and that programs for seniors and children would be most vulnerable to cuts.
While saying that the across-the-board approach showed promise, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said that even lawmakers who supported it were quick to defend their priorities from the budget ax.
"As soon as you talk about across-the-board cuts, everybody jumps up and salutes it, and then their second point is, but I have this very special program," Armey said. "It is an idea that is easier in the abstract than it is in the concrete."
White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said the GOP proposal would force drastic cuts in everything from medical research to the FBI and the battle against terrorism. "It takes the worst elements of a lot of bad ideas into one really big, horrible idea," he said.
Kasich met yesterday with Domenici to discuss the approach, and several other senators embraced the idea. "It's one of a number of options that are available to us," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. "I don't think we should jump to any conclusions until we see exactly where we are when we get to the conclusion on these appropriations bills."
CAPTION: Backed by military leaders and members of Congress, President Clinton signs the National Defense Authorization Act outside the Pentagon yesterday.