Now that the Republicans have granted President Clinton much of the additional money he sought as part of the year-end budget talks, the GOP is looking for something important in return: a guarantee that the two sides won't "raid" Social Security.
Almost from the beginning of this fall's budget negotiations, GOP leaders have repeatedly promised to finance all 13 spending bills for the first time in decades without using Social Security payroll taxes. They claim to have done that largely with creative accounting tactics that independent experts say understate the amount of actual government spending.
This week House and Senate GOP negotiators agreed to spend at least $5.2 billion more on Clinton's top domestic and international priorities in fiscal 2000, including more for teachers, police, land acquisition and foreign aid. They and the White House also agreed to devote an extra $11 billion over the next five years to give more money to hospitals, health plans and other providers of care to Medicare patients.
Now in their rush to finish up, both sides are trying to figure out how to provide the additional funding and still keep their pledge on Social Security.
The White House has given Republican negotiators proposals for offsetting the additional spending with cuts in other parts of the budget, including delaying the military's Sept. 30, 2000, pay period and re-auctioning parts of the broadcast spectrum now owned by bankrupt telecommunications companies. GOP leaders also said they may still impose a small across-the-board spending cut, over the administration's objections, to avert having to use any of the surplus money generated by the Social Security program.
But even with those proposed savings, the Republicans may have to rely on accounting gimmicks to keep their pledge at least technically, and they are counting on the White House to back them up in making that claim.
Yesterday, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) confirmed that the Republicans were seeking an understanding with the White House on accounting protocol that would enable both sides to declare that they stayed clear of the Social Security surplus.
"I think obviously it's important that we come to agreement on that, that yes, indeed, we truly did it," said Armey, who added that the White House package of proposed cuts was "not wholly acceptable."
A House GOP aide said that congressional leaders were seeking a "get-out-of-jail card from the administration on [budget] scorekeeping."
While White House officials may be inclined to accommodate Republican negotiators who are giving them much of what they sought, they are sensitive to the concerns of congressional Democrats who have argued with the GOP over which party has done more to protect Social Security. Democrats are bitter that the National Republican Congressional Committee ran attack ads in some of their members' districts and see no reason for the White House to lift a finger to help the Republicans.
White House budget director Jacob "Jack" Lew said the talks until now have focused on spending and policy differences and the GOP proposals for an across-the-board cut, which the administration adamantly opposes. As for Republican efforts to enlist the White House in backing accounting techniques, "I've not been involved in any discussions of that sort," he said.
Following a week of frenetic bargaining that led to a compromise on Clinton's nearly $1.4 billion plan for hiring new teachers and reducing class size, yesterday was a quiet day on Capitol Hill. With no formal talks scheduled, the two sides prepared for a final push to wrap up matters early next week. House leaders had hoped to stage a final vote today, but with many issues still unresolved and the Senate reconvening for regular business on Tuesday, the leadership put off final action yesterday.
Meanwhile, the agreement to give $11 billion more to providers of Medicare services represents the only change the government will make this year to the nation's health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, despite exhortations from both the administration and Capitol Hill that the program needs fundamental reforms to prevent it from running out of money early in the next century.
The additional Medicare payments come after months of feverish lobbying by virtually every segment of the health care industry, which has been complaining ever since a 1997 budget agreement intended to slow increases in federal spending. The agreement will give more money to every major health care constituency.
It will give more money to teaching hospitals and other hospitals that treat a large share of poor patients, and provide extra money for all hospitals' outpatient departments. At the same time, it will limit how much money Medicare patients can be forced to pay for outpatient services. Nursing homes will get paid more for especially expensive cases. Managed-care plans and home health agencies will be able to wait longer to feel the full brunt of new payment methods expected to result in lower payments. And tight limits imposed in 1997 on reimbursements for physical therapy will be abolished after two years.
Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.