The White House took a new hard line on spending yesterday, saying President Clinton will veto a $12.7 billion foreign aid bill today and will refuse to sign other key spending measures until Republicans address his priorities and assure the Social Security surplus is being protected.
The foreign aid bill was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress over the strong objections of Democrats, who complained that it contained no money to implement the Wye River Middle East peace accords and underfunds or ignores other Clinton initiatives. Republicans insist they are doing the best they can under tough budget constraints, but that the president is demanding a "blank check" for foreign aid.
With a Thursday deadline looming for Congress and the president to reach agreement on more than a half-dozen fiscal 2000 spending bills, White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta and economics chief Gene Sperling voiced impatience with the Republicans' refusal to engage in year-end negotiations over education, law enforcement, the environment and other concerns.
The officials also charged that Congress was engaging in an unprecedented use of budget accounting "gimmicks" -- $46 billion worth by some counts -- to mask the fact the spending bills already are eating into the Social Security-generated surplus, despite assurances to the contrary.
"So, I think from now on . . . the president doesn't intend to sign any bills as we move forward in this period, until we know how all this adds up," Podesta said on ABC's "This Week."
Still smarting from the Senate's stinging rebuke of the nuclear test ban treaty last week, the administration officials made it clear yesterday they were ready to play hardball over the budget.
Sperling said in an interview that "it's really long past the time [Republicans] got over their fear of being in the same room with us." He insisted that Clinton would not be pulled into a "bill-by-bill process where at the end of the day you have a budget that doesn't add up." But Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), a Senate leader, declared on "Fox News Sunday" that "there will not be a budget summit" to resolve remaining differences. Instead, Republicans will insist on completing work on the last four of the 13 spending bills this week and leave it to Clinton to either sign or veto them. A three-week "continuing resolution" to keep the government operating beyond the start of the new fiscal year expire on Thursday, but it is certain to be extended because neither side is willing to accept another government shutdown.
"It seems they want to get into a budget summit so they can find ways to spend more money," said John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "The speaker was hoping the president would take a look at all of these bills and sign them on their merits without getting into any games. It's unfortunate the White House now looks like they want to play games."
The Republicans' reluctance to take part in a summit with the administration is understandable. They were burned politically after White House meetings with Clinton in 1995 that led to two government shutdowns that the public largely blamed on them. During meetings between then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Podesta last fall, the Republicans agreed to spending $21 billion above the legal spending caps, a concession that hurt them with their own conservative base in last fall's elections.
This time, House and Senate GOP leaders have chosen to negotiate among themselves in shaping the major spending bills, occasionally making concessions to the White House to gain the president's signature but refusing to enter into a comprehensive deal for passing the largest and most politically explosive bills.
A notable exception was a recent deal struck by White House budget director Jacob "Jack" Lew and Republicans to increase spending for veterans, housing and space programs. The president also is expected to sign a farm bill that includes a record $8.7 billion of emergency aide. But the White House and Congress appear to be on a collision course over bills to finance labor, health and education programs and the departments of Commerce, Justice and State because of inadequate funding, and, in the case of the interior and District of Columbia bills, because of differences in policy.
The White House signaled yesterday that the president also is giving serious thought to vetoing the $268 billion defense appropriations bill, despite earlier indications that he would accept it.
Clinton so far has signed only five of the 13 bills: military construction, legislative branch, treasury-postal, transportation, and energy and water. The president is unwilling to allow the Republicans to hem him in by completing work this week on the remaining -- and largest -- domestic spending bills without taking into account his demands.
Moreover, the White House is strenuously objecting to the Republicans' use of accounting gimmicks -- although his own budget includes many -- and their threat to impose an across-the-board spending cut to avoid dipping into the Social Security surplus.
While the Republicans insist that the across-the-board cuts would be no more than a percentage point or two, a new analysis by the Office of Management and Budget concludes that the cuts would have to be at least 9 percent and as much as 17 percent if defense programs are excluded.