The House yesterday approved a plan to boost spending for health and education programs while ordering a 1 percent cut in virtually every federal agency as Republican leaders positioned themselves for a final showdown with President Clinton over the budget.
Disregarding White House warnings against "mindless" budget cutting, GOP leaders pushed through legislation that would impose $5.6 billion worth of across-the-board reductions. They claimed the move is essential to protecting funds in the Social Security program--an assertion disputed by Democrats and independent budget analysts.
The new cuts were included in a giant bill to fund both the country's biggest social programs and the relatively tiny budget of the District of Columbia. The District language would overturn a city referendum permitting the medical use of marijuana, but lawmakers agreed to allow private clinics to distribute needles to drug addicts without losing federal funds. [Details, Page B2]
The significance of the day's events was largely political. Clinton has threatened to veto the measure, as he has already vetoed three other spending bills approved by the GOP-controlled Congress, so yesterday's action served mostly to highlight partisan sparring over Social Security and other issues that could loom large in next year's elections.
The giant Labor and Health and Human Services bill--with extra funds for education programs and the National Institutes of Health--was approved on a 218 to 211 vote, with only four Democrats supporting the measure and seven Republicans in opposition. The Senate will consider the same bill soon, possibly today.
With Congress now having completed work on the 13 annual spending bills, the president and GOP leaders will have to negotiate a compromise budget plan for the year. Because neither side is willing to trigger a government shutdown over their differences, the House and Senate voted yesterday to extend today's deadline for completing work on the budget until next Friday.
The two sides are not far apart on overall spending, but they differ on how it should be used: The administration wants more money to hire teachers and police officers, pay overdue United Nations dues and fund foreign aid, while opposing measures it says would harm the environment.
The two sides had pledged last week to work more cooperatively toward agreement on the budget, but such cooperation has been notably absent in recent days. In the last week, Congress has rushed through several spending bills, fully aware that they faced a presidential veto, largely to buttress Republicans' claims that they are the more zealous protectors of Social Security.
The GOP bases that assertion on the claim that it is financing the budget without tapping the surplus revenue generated by Social Security payroll taxes, as the government has routinely done for a generation.
"They said it couldn't be done. This Congress has finally stopped the raid on the Social Security surplus," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said at a GOP rally after the vote.
But such claims were roundly denounced by Democrats, and both sides brandished new analyses from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office purporting to support their competing assertions.
Republicans have constructed their budget plan with a host of creative accounting gimmicks that have the effect of understating actual spending. GOP leaders achieved one of their biggest savings--$19.3 billion--by selectively choosing between CBO and administration assumptions to come up with the lowest possible estimate of how much money would be spent next year.
Traditionally, Republicans have insisted on using CBO forecasts in writing their budgets, but this time they chose to use the Office of Management and Budget's more optimistic forecasts in some areas. By using such forecasts, Republicans said, they had steered clear of tapping the Social Security surplus.
Hastert circulated a letter from CBO Director Dan L. Crippen confirming this. But the CBO disagrees with those forecasts, and in a second letter to Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), Crippen said the GOP bills would cut into the Social Security surplus by $17.1 billion if CBO assumptions are used.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said the CBO analysis "exposes once and for all the clear fact that Republicans are the raiders of the Social Security surplus they claim to have safely stowed in a lockbox."
Clinton denounced GOP leaders for "playing games" with the budget. "These kinds of games are only possible because the economy is strong and the American people are self-confident and people believe, therefore, that they can do frivolous things that they would otherwise never consider doing to try to get short-term political advantage," he said.
Such rhetoric highlighted the partisan nature of the day's events, as Congress haggled over a bill all members understood was headed toward a veto. In an effort to smooth passage of the bill ostensibly imposing across-the-board spending reductions, Hastert promised House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) that $329 million in cuts to transportation programs would be restored in the next fiscal year.
The Labor and HHS bill also included 318 projects for lawmakers' districts totaling $360 million. The measures included $1 million for a Zoonotic Disease Research Program at the Brookfield Zoo in the district of Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Ill.); $1 million for a pool to conduct aquatic therapy in the district of Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.); and $2.5 million to train Russians and other foreign workers in oil field management in Alaska.
Several of the measures were inserted by Senate appropriators. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) added $1 million to help the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston translate bioterrorism research into vaccines for civilians, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) inserted $1 million for Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense.
Republicans and White House officials were cautious in assessing prospects for a compromise within the next week or two. "Despite being miles apart on political rhetoric, we are fairly close together on getting our jobs done," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.).
But Spratt, the top-ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, complained that the parties have yet to engage each other on their substantive differences. "We're talking past each other," he said.
Where Things Stand
Status of the 13 spending bills for fiscal 2000:
Commerce, Justice, State--Vetoed
District of Columbia--Vetoed, new version awaiting Senate action
Energy and water development--Signed
Interior--Approved by Congress, not sent to president
Labor, Health and Human Services--Awaiting Senate action
Treasury, Postal Service--Signed
Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development--Signed