After the initial euphoria that a final budget deal was at hand, talks bogged down yesterday over a range of issues, including whether to link the issue of abortion advocacy to the payment of United Nations dues. As a result, Democrats warned that an agreement may not be possible any time soon.
Negotiators exchanged proposals and counterproposals throughout the day by fax and telephone, hoping to settle years of differences over some $1 billion in back dues that the United States owes the world body. President Clinton and other White House officials have signaled that, as a way of ending the controversy over the dues, they are willing to agree to some restrictions on the degree to which foreign groups may spend money to promote abortion abroad.
However, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) warned yesterday that a majority of Democrats would oppose an agreement that meets GOP demands to link the payment of dues to proposed measures barring family planning aid to foreign groups that lobby to liberalize abortion laws.
"I think a lot of our members will not want to vote for that," Gephardt told reporters, after meeting with White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta and budget chief Jacob "Jack" Lew at the Capitol.
Moreover, Gephardt and Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), one of the chief Democratic negotiators, warned that it will be difficult for GOP leaders to carry out their plan to try to pass the five remaining spending bills in one package next week because of the members' wide-ranging views over many of the remaining issues.
House GOP leaders boasted Wednesday afternoon that they had all but wrapped up an agreement with the White House. But yesterday, with the House and Senate gone until early next week and with no further talks scheduled, prospects for a rapid conclusion grew bleak.
White House officials believe that the window for an acceptable compromise--one that presumably would involve prodding reluctant Democrats to accept some compromise on abortion rights overseas--is closing fast and want a deal by the middle of next week. Podesta has decided not to depart with Clinton on Sunday for a European trip, though he may join the president later.
The two sides have made some important strides over the past two weeks. Republicans have granted Clinton about $5.2 billion of the additional spending that he sought and have agreed to a compromise over the president's plan for hiring 100,000 more teachers that provides some flexibility in the use of the funds, as the Republicans had sought. The Republicans also have given Clinton more money for western land acquisition and for hiring more police officers.
But many differences remain, including those over the administration's proposals for writing off some international debt, environmental issues, anti-hate crime legislation that is sought by the White House and the GOP proposal for an across-the-board spending cut that is opposed by Clinton.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has signaled a desire to extend permanently the Northeast Interstate Dairy compact, an agreement under which several states in New England set milk prices above federal levels.
A House leadership aide said Republicans are still debating whether to extend the Northeast compact permanently or temporarily, and are planning to attach language to overturn an Agriculture Department dairy pricing reform plan.
Obey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said House Republicans had promised him that no dairy language would make it into a spending bill and that he would oppose any attempt to add it. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) has vowed to stop all legislation, with the exception of the bankruptcy bill, until he is assured Congress is not undermining his state's dairy farmers.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) also has threatened to block the spending bills to win more money for Louisiana and other coastal states from the proposed funding for land and water conservation efforts. And Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) is exerting pressure to get disaster relief for hurricane-damaged North Carolina.
However, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) appears to have withdrawn his threat to hold up action unless the final agreement allows coal mining companies to dump waste into rivers and streams. "These myths are spread all over the place, but they are wide of the mark," Byrd said in a statement yesterday. "It is not in my intentions, and it is not in the best interests of completing our work on the appropriations bills."
Clearly, the negotiations over the payment of back dues to the United Nations were the most contentious, carrying with them far-reaching political and international implications. Both sides acknowledged that a failure to pay the back dues will tarnish the country's reputation abroad and will lead to the loss of U.S. representation in the U.N. General Assembly early next year.
However, conservative antiabortion forces led by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) have repeatedly demanded that the payment of arrears be made conditional on White House acceptance of legislative language that would ban U.S. funding of international family planning organizations that promote the right to abortion in other countries. Clinton has been reluctant to anger Democrats and women's groups who argue that U.S. money is used to further family planning and women's health, not to directly promote abortions.
According to GOP sources, Clinton in recent weeks indicated to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that he could compromise on the family planning issue if a broader agreement on the U.N. dues issue is reached. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has "volunteered to be the lightning rod for criticism from abortion rights groups" if Clinton compromises with Congress.
Staff writer Helen Dewar and special correspondent Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.
The Emerging Budget Deal
This is the status of the five remaining spending bills:
Labor-Health-Education: The Republicans agreed to add $1.45 billion in spending for wide range of programs and went along with most of President Clinton's plan for hiring more teachers.
Total spending: $315 billion.
Commerce-Justice-State: The Republicans went along with an additional $616 million of spending, including $270 million of extra funds for the president's program to hire more police. The two sides are still haggling over the payment of nearly $1 billion in back dues to the United Nations.
Total spending: $37.8 billion.
Foreign Operations: The Republicans added $2.6 billion sought by the administration for the Wye River Middle East peace accord, international debt relief and economic assistance.
Total spending: $15.3 billion
Interior: The Republicans added $486 million for acquiring western desert and ranch land as part of Clinton's "Lands Legacy" program and agreed to water down a number of riders on oil and gas royalties, mining and grazing that the administration contended are anti-environment.
Total spending: $14.9 billion.
District of Columbia: The Republicans added $7 million for environmental cleanup at the old Lorton prison site. As part of a compromise, the Republicans agreed to allow private clinics such as Whitman-Walker to distribute needles to drug addicts, but overturned a city referendum permitting the medical use of marijuana.
Total spending: $436 million.
SOURCE: House Appropriations Committee