The House yesterday approved a compromise $15.3 billion foreign aid bill, including funds for the Wye River Middle East peace accord, as Congress and the White House prepared for a final push to settle remaining budget differences next week.
By 316 to 100, the House ratified a deal worked out late Thursday that includes $2.6 billion more for the peace effort, international debt relief and economic assistance and other programs than provided under the original bill vetoed last month by President Clinton.
The outcome marked a strategic victory of sorts for the White House, which was eager to settle foreign aid issues before they became enmeshed in haggling over Clinton's signature domestic programs.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), speaking last night from Chicago, where he and Clinton announced a bipartisan initiative aimed at helping low-income areas, said the two sides agreed to focus on resolving their remaining spending differences. "We did agree to try to keep our people talking over the weekend and get the other three bills done," Hastert said.
In a three-way phone conversation earlier this week, Clinton, Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) discussed how to scale back the Republicans' plan for a 1 percent across-the-board spending cut, and Clinton reaffirmed his opposition to this approach, which he has said could harm vital programs. But GOP leaders pressed the president to help find other savings, known in budget language as "offsets."
A Senate GOP leadership aide said the Republican leaders' message was, "If you don't like that 1 percent cut, you can shrink it if you show real offsets."
The Republicans have seized on the across-the-board cut as a way to keep their promise not to use Social Security payroll taxes to help fund federal programs.
White House budget director Jacob "Jack" Lew said such a cut "is not wise policy and it's not necessary." He added, "We've stated repeatedly that we are prepared to provide offsets for our funding priorities."
On the foreign aid bill, for instance, the White House agreed to limit the practice of making early disbursals of military aid to Israel as a way of saving some money.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said the breakthrough on the traditionally contentious foreign aid issue has enhanced prospects for a quick settlement of remaining differences.
The Senate is scheduled to take up the bill early next week, although Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) threatened to block a vote unless he received a commitment that Congress would address legislation to allow West Virginia coal mines to continue to dump their waste into the state's streams.
The White House and congressional negotiators plan to meet over the weekend in search of a final compromise. Four other major spending bills remain hung up in disputes over Clinton's proposals for hiring more teachers and police officers, paying nearly $1 billion of back dues to the United Nations, and acquiring more government land.
The president's $1 billion Lands Legacy program is one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations over a final version of the Interior Department spending bill. Clinton's plan would allow the federal government and states to purchase land to preserve wildlife, limit urban sprawl, and create recreational areas.
Republicans appropriated $266 million for the program, arguing that the government was already struggling to take care of park and wilderness areas. GOP negotiators are ready to provide more money, lawmakers said, although they are skeptical of the need.
"We have a $15 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks," said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield. "We're concerned that before we acquire more land, we should be able to take care of the land we already have."
Democrats including Rep. Mark Udall (Colo.) described Clinton's initiative as something that "could be the most important environmental legislation that the 106th Congress tackles."
In a rare sign of bipartisanship, 188 Democrats joined with 127 Republicans and one independent to approve the foreign aid bill yesterday. Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that wrote the original bill, voted against the measure after party leaders took control of the final bargaining and imposed a settlement.
The bill contains all $1.8 billion Clinton sought for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians under the Wye River accord and $799 million of the $1.4 billion he wanted for other foreign aid initiatives, including extra money for overseas economic aid and debt relief, African development, U.N. peacekeeping and aid to former Soviet republics.
While the Republicans agreed to more money for bilateral, government-to-government debt relief, they balked at giving more authority to the International Monetary Fund.Staff writer George Hager contributed to this report.