Congressional Republicans agreed yesterday to pump billions of extra dollars into federal education initiatives, the National Institutes of Health and scores of other social programs in an effort to trump President Clinton on some of his signature issues.
After initially threatening deep cuts, House GOP leaders went along with the Senate in adding substantially to Clinton's budget request on many of these politically sensitive programs. The Republicans added $340 million for education, for a total of $35.2 billion, and $2.3 billion for the NIH, for a total of $17.9 billion.
In doing so, Republicans said they were signaling a willingness to work with Clinton to complete work quickly on this year's budget. But their move also reflected a deliberate political effort to outmaneuver the president on some of the very issues on which he has successfully pummeled Republicans.
For instance, Clinton and other Democrats have gained politically with attacks on the GOP-controlled Congress for insufficient support of education. Republicans hope to deflect such barbs by raising the amount they are willing to spend on schools and college grants while offering the public a different set of priorities: Rather than fund Clinton's proposals to hire new teachers, the GOP wants to give states greater flexibility to spend federal money as they see fit.
"The difference between our approach and the president's is he wants greater authority in Washington, and if he's going to veto the bill, that will be the reason," said Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), who heads the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and education.
Still, the emerging GOP budget strategy is full of risks, not the least of which is its heavy reliance on creative accounting tactics aimed at skirting limits on how much Congress can spend -- a trend that has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle.
The new labor-and-health bill, with more than $300 billion in funding, would declare about $2 billion for energy assistance, refugees and public health to be "emergency" funding exempt from spending limits. And it would essentially borrow $10 billion from next year's budget to help finance some of the programs.
Republicans are also considering an across-the-board spending cut to offset some of the additional funding, an approach the administration opposes, and they stress that all the numbers are subject to change.
While conceding that Republicans are spending more than the president requested, Democrats said the GOP is courting a confrontation unless it accommodates Clinton's priorities, which include expanding foreign aid, hiring new teachers and police officers, and stripping spending bills of measures he considers harmful to the environment.
Unless they make those changes, warned Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, "all of these bills are exercises in futility."
The emergence of the huge social spending bill was a significant event on a day in which Republicans and administration officials tried to capitalize on the cooperative spirit at Tuesday's White House meeting between Clinton and the congressional leadership. Clinton agreed with GOP demands that the budget be funded without dipping into Social Security surpluses, and Republicans promised to address his spending priorities in the remaining spending bills.
As White House budget chief Jacob "Jack" Lew met with appropriations leaders at the Capitol, Clinton signed a $99 billion bill for housing, veterans and space programs that he called a product of bipartisan cooperation. It was the sixth of the 13 spending bills to receive his signature; he has vetoed two more, and five others have yet to reach his desk.
"In spite of all the conflicts in the last few weeks, we still have a great opportunity to make this a season of progress," Clinton said.
Also, the House and Senate gave final approval to a $37 billion bill to fund the departments of Commerce, Justice and State. But in a sign of displeasure with spending priorities, only 13 House Democrats supported the measure and it barely passed that chamber, 215 to 213.
Democrats complained that the bill failed to fully fund the president's program to hire more police officers, would jeopardize the United States' vote in the United Nations by delaying payment of back dues, and does not include hate crime legislation the administration favors.
In a floor speech, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) complained that Republicans were moving ahead with a major spending bill without the benefit of a compromise.
"The Republicans can't see the forest for the trees. And the president has said no more signing trees until we see the forest," Gephardt said. "Unless we sit down and negotiate the big picture, we aren't going to pass any of these bills."
Lew and House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) described yesterday's bargaining session as "constructive" and "very positive." However, a White House aide said later that there had been little progress and blamed that on comments by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) that appeared to violate an agreement to lower the political rhetoric. DeLay and Watts held a news conference where they held up what they called a "Clinton-Gore charge card" resembling a Social Security card, with the word "rejected" stamped on it.
DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon disparaged the White House criticism. "This is worse than Newt Gingrich complaining about being at the back of the plane."