Defying a veto threat, Republican leaders narrowly pushed through the Senate a plan to reduce spending by nearly 1 percent at every federal agency, part of the last of the major appropriations bills to clear Congress this fall.
On a 49 to 48 vote that split largely along party lines, the Senate approved a bill combining $317.5 billion in spending for labor, health and education programs with the District of Columbia's operating budget. The same measure passed the House last week.
With President Clinton firmly opposed to the bill because it does not include funds to hire 100,000 new teachers and reduce average class size, the bill is merely another bargaining chip in the budget negotiations between congressional leaders and White House officials.
Clinton, in Norway for Mideast peace talks, dismissed the unwieldy spending legislation as "a catalog of missed opportunities, misguided priorities and mindless cuts."
"It forces America's schoolchildren to pay the price for Congress's failure to make responsible choices," Clinton said. "I will not let it become law."
But Republicans complained that Clinton was attempting to dictate educational policy from Washington rather than granting discretion to local school districts.
"We say that if the local school districts don't agree that classroom size is their number one priority, that they can use it on teacher competency or they can use it for local discretion," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "They don't have an absolute straitjacket."
Even as the White House and congressional Republicans remain divided over a variety of issues--including the hiring of additional police officers, environmental protection and the payment of back dues to the United Nations--they appear remarkably close on overall spending.
In fact, the Republican-controlled Congress, which made fiscal constraint and downsizing the government the cornerstone of its agenda, has gradually moved toward the Democrats in showering funds on domestic and defense programs that they mutually support.
Under the labor-health-education bill, for example, the Education Department--once targeted by the Republicans for elimination--would receive $37.4 billion, or $300 million more than Clinton requested. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would receive $17.9 billion, or more than $2 billion beyond what the administration sought.
Republicans have shown little reluctance this year to either match or exceed Clinton's budget requests, from defense and veterans health programs to space exploration and special education. Even some of the programs that Republican revolutionaries had marked for extinction--including the National Endowment for the Arts and AmeriCorps--have survived and in some cases thrived.
"The Republicans have not been able to deliver on their promise to get rid of things in the federal government and most of these programs have higher budgets, not lower budgets, than they had five years ago," said Stephen Moore, a budget analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute.
Based on congressional action so far, spending in fiscal 2000 will exceed last year's levels by nearly $34 billion, a 5.8 percent increase in discretionary spending, according to new estimates of the Congressional Budget Office. While both parties are pledging to try to avoid using any of the Social Security surplus for new programs--a pledge that the CBO says already has been broken--the two sides long ago abandoned any serious attempt to stay within the spending constraints imposed by the 1997 balanced-budget agreement.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said much of the additional spending this year was unavoidable--to finance U.S. military intervention overseas, beef up defense and help economically distressed farmers. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) added, "We've made a conscious decision in the last two Congresses to give a higher priority to education . . . and the NIH."
But White House Budget Director Jacob "Jack" Lew cautioned that, despite the GOP spending surge, "the aggregate number masks where the most difficult issues are right now."
Some Democrats warned that differences over issues such as U.N. dues are so wide that agreement may not be possible for weeks. "These policy differences are real. [The Republicans] are dug in on these things and the president is dug in on them, and I don't know that it's going to be resolved quickly," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).