House Republican leaders said yesterday they now intend to apply their proposed across-the-board spending cut to the salaries of members of Congress, reversing their policy in the face of sharp White House criticism.
When they unveiled their plan late last week, Republicans insisted that pay raises for lawmakers and federal employees would be exempted from across-the-board cuts of as much as 1.4 percent. Instead, they said, their primary focus would be to force federal departments and agencies to root out waste, fraud and abuse.
But congressional GOP leaders shifted ground yesterday, saying that congressional salaries and other legislative costs would be targeted for cuts as well, after President Clinton declared he would "not allow Congress to raise its own pay and fund its own pork barrel projects" while slashing spending in most agencies.
Congress earlier this year voted to grant itself a 3.4 percent cost of living adjustment, from $136,700 to $141,300. The across-the-board cut would apply to the increased salary level, according to Republicans, who also challenged Clinton to voluntarily accept a comparable cut in his own salary.
"We're going to set the example," said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.). "We're frankly going to put our money where our mouth is."
The across-the-board cuts are essential to the Republican strategy for passing the 13 annual spending bills without using Social Security payroll taxes. The Republicans and Democrats are locked in a bruising public relations squabble over which party is more concerned about protecting Social Security. Because they have rejected Clinton's proposals for raising the tobacco tax and other user fees and are unable to find consensus on specific program cuts, Republicans have seized on the across-the-board approach as their only way out.
But they are coming under pressure from a variety of sources. Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) is trying to exempt transportation programs from the reductions, while pro-defense lawmakers want the Pentagon excluded. Clinton, meanwhile, has vowed to veto any bill containing across-the-board cuts, and yesterday Cabinet members, Pentagon officials and congressional Democrats warned that the cuts would have a serious effect on government services and defense.
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said the GOP plan, combined with cuts Congress has already made from Clinton's proposed budget, would mean $300 million less than what Clinton wanted for after-school funds, and $30 million less for literacy programs.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the national parks are already underfunded, with sewer systems overflowing and out of compliance with codes in Yellowstone National Park. And Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the FBI would not be able to fill 520 agent positions or implement plans for a missing-persons DNA database.
"They say it won't make any difference. Well, ask the Defense Department whether it makes any difference. We're talking about laying off 29, 30 thousand people in the Defense Department," said Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "This is a mindless way to do budgeting and I predict it will fail."
House Republicans said they would likely scale the across-the-board cut back to 1 percent before offering the plan as part of a huge labor, health and education spending bill later this week. Neither pay raises for civilian and military personnel nor mandatory spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid would be affected by the across-the-board cuts, according to GOP officials.
But House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. (Okla.), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) and other Republicans argued yesterday that the government was awash in wasteful spending--from a $1 million outhouse at Glacier National Park in Montana to two misplaced Defense Department tugboats--and said the government easily could find savings equivalent to one penny on every dollar of spending.
"The president is going to probably complain we're going to hurt all these vulnerable people," said House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), one of the plan's proponents. "But this is a great opportunity for us . . . to begin to root out the duplication and wasteful programs."
The proposed across-the-board cuts would apply only to discretionary spending for the day-to-day operations of government agencies and the salaries and operational costs of House and Senate members. While Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has objected to the across-the-board approach, the Senate GOP leadership appears to be on board.
"We would accept an across-the-board cut . . . and I think it would have to include [congressional] salaries," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (Idaho), a member of the Senate Republican leadership.
CAPTION: From left, White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, budget chief Jacob "Jack" Lew, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) answer budget questions.