Confident they hold the upper hand over Congress in the federal budget impasse, White House officials have settled on a confrontational strategy of rejecting virtually every Republican proposal, hoping GOP leaders will be forced to accept administration spending priorities on education, law enforcement and other issues.
President Clinton has vowed to continue vetoing bills that don't meet his spending goals, while also signaling his intention to focus blame on the GOP-led Congress if a budget isn't enacted by the Oct. 21 deadline. Administration officials feel they need to offer few if any concessions to the Republicans because they believe public opinion is on their side, and congressional leaders have refused to negotiate openly with the president.
"The idea is to keep the pressure on, and to make them consider some of the things that are in our budget," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert. "As they get closer and closer to the end, they're going to have to come to us and look at some of our proposals."
Clinton underscored his hard-line stance against Congress in several areas yesterday, blasting Republican senators for a "disgraceful" rejection of a judicial nominee and accusing House GOP leaders of a "travesty" in dealing with health insurance legislation. It marked perhaps the sharpest exchanges between the president and Congress since the Senate conducted its impeachment trial in February.
White House officials believe they can stand pat on budget issues because earlier this year they proposed an $8 billion cigarette tax increase and other revenue hikes that would have financed much of their increased spending proposals in areas such as education and the environment. Congress rejected the proposals as politically unpalatable. But Clinton argues that he was willing to find ways to pay for his spending plans while the Republicans have been less responsible.
"Clinton had a real proposal there," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. "From a public relations standpoint, the Republicans began to hurt themselves with gimmicks that were readily seen by the public as gimmicks, like declaring the decennial census an 'emergency.' " Emergency spending measures aren't counted against the budget restrictions to which Congress is struggling to adhere.
Democrats and Republicans are accusing each other of dipping into Social Security surplus funds to finance the fiscal 2000 budget. White House officials often note that the Congressional Budget Office recently concluded that GOP spending plans were doing just that, despite Republicans' vows not to do so.
The administration yesterday attacked the latest congressional proposal, which calls for a 2.7 percent across-the-board spending cut in most federal programs. Such cuts, White House budget director Jacob "Jack" Lew said in a memo, "would damage the federal government's ability to provide services to the American people in all areas, including education, defense, law enforcement and medical care." Congress would have to cut spending by 9 percent to achieve its stated goal of protecting Social Security surpluses, administration officials said, which would prompt devastating reductions in many programs.
In the face of White House intransigence, congressional Republicans have insisted they won't enter into the kind of open-ended negotiations with Clinton that in the past have led to major GOP concessions. Instead they say they will crank out the remaining spending bills and accuse Clinton of using the Social Security surplus if he vetoes them because he wants greater spending.
"If the White House thinks we are stewing, they're wrong," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.). "We're taking up and passing bills one at a time . . . and if the president vetoes them, he's going to have to explain why."
Despite such defiance, there were signs yesterday that congressional Republicans might yield to White House requests for additional spending on housing, Americorps and the space program.
But Republicans plan to stand firm on most spending measures, at least for now. They believe a good test of their strategy will come when Clinton disposes of the $12.6 billion fiscal 2000 foreign aid bill that passed the House on Tuesday and narrowly cleared the Senate yesterday, by a 51 to 49 vote.
Clinton has vowed to veto the measure because it provides $1.9 billion less than he requested and contains nothing to help implement the 1998 Wye River Middle East peace accords. GOP leaders say the bill is relatively generous in light of budget constraints, containing more in economic and military aid to Israel and Egypt than Clinton requested.
"If Clinton vetoes it, we'll be ready to make the case it's all about the president using Social Security for more spending," said John P. Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Presidential aides, however, say they will remind the public that Clinton had proposed the tobacco tax increase and other fees or taxes that could have financed such spending measures.
"The Republicans wanted to put the president in a corner by saying he either had to give up his education [proposals] and his [extra] cops and other initiatives or take funds from the Social Security surplus," said White House economic policy chief Gene Sperling. "But the catch is that the president is willing to avoid the choice between cutting education and taking money from the surplus by putting down specific, credible tough choices like tobacco. . . . There's no question their strategy has backfired."