An article yesterday on House passage of a spending bill incorrectly characterized one of the savings provisions as expediting the transfer of money to the U.S. Treasury from private accounts held by the Federal Reserve. The accounts are government accounts. (Published 11/20/99)
Striking a rare bipartisan note, the House yesterday overwhelmingly approved a massive budget bill that provides more spending for health and education, frees up funds to pay U.S. debts to the United Nations and restores $12 billion worth of cuts in the Medicare program.
With Congress mired in gridlock over many issues, the spending bill was a vehicle for the House to enact several other pieces of key legislation, including a plan to allow satellite TV providers to deliver local broadcasts to their customers and another preserving a dairy cartel that favors northeastern farmers.
The bill also included $435.8 million for the District of Columbia and a number of provisions affecting the city. While the House finally relented and allowed private clinics, including Whitman-Walker, to use their own funds to finance a needle exchange for drug addicts, it prohibited the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes--as called for in a citywide referendum.
Despite months of bitter rhetoric from both parties, the giant measure easily passed the House, 296 to 135, a testament to the numerous politically appealing items in the bill, such as more money for teachers and police officers and dozens of projects for local districts. On the final vote, 125 Democrats, including Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (R-Mo.), joined with 170 Republicans to pass the spending measure, which completes the budget for fiscal 2000.
The relative comity in the House was matched by brinkmanship in the Senate, where leaders worked all day to clear away assorted roadblocks that briefly threatened to bring the government to a halt. While hours of contentious debate remain, it appeared likely yesterday that the Senate could finish up by this weekend, according to key lawmakers.
A handful of senators led by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) threatened to shut down federal agencies today unless they got their way on the dairy legislation--which could hurt midwestern farmers--and the satellite television language.
But Kohl backed down under pressure from his colleagues while Baucus extracted a commitment from the leadership that temporarily defused the crisis and ensured that government agencies would continue to operate today. And the Senate joined the House in passing another interim resolution that will keep the government operating through Dec. 2, giving the chamber time to join the House in completing work on the budget.
Traveling in Turkey yesterday, President Clinton praised the congressional action as a "hard-won victory for the American people."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) hailed Republican efforts to fashion a budget that, for the first time, would not tap the surplus money generated by the Social Security program. The Congressional Budget Office and other independent experts have questioned whether that effort will be fully realized, but many lawmakers of both parties agree a new benchmark for fiscal responsibility has been set.
"It changed the way that this town does business and it probably will put an indelible mark on how this country will see its fiscal and financial future," Hastert said.
The final budget deal didn't fully come together until nearly dawn yesterday, several hours after the White House had accepted a small across-the board spending cut in federal agencies, giving the GOP the one, largely symbolic concession they had insisted upon for several weeks.
In the end, both the White House and GOP leaders extracted concessions on spending and policies important to their respective political bases. With overall spending for the 13 annual appropriations bills exceeding last year's total by more than $30 billion, both sides found something to boast about.
Clinton won more funds for programs to hire more community-based police officers and teachers, to acquire more environmentally fragile land, to underwrite Middle East peace efforts and to pay nearly $1 billion in back debts to the United Nations. He also won concessions on environmental provisions, such as charging oil and gas companies more for drilling on public lands.
Yet the Republicans boasted of more spending for education, National Institutes of Health research and veterans health care than requested by the president. They also scored several policy victories, including giving schools more leeway in spending the funds earmarked for hiring more teachers and new abortion restrictions on international family planning groups.
And by reaching agreement with the administration on a strategy for offsetting additional spending, Republicans claimed that they had not intentionally dipped into the Social Security surplus. Most of the $8.5 billion of savings was achieved by shifting the last military payday to the next fiscal year and expediting the transfer of money to the U.S. Treasury from private accounts held by the Federal Reserve.
Another area of consensus was Medicare, a program many lawmakers fear could run into financial trouble down the road. Both parties agreed to give an extra $12 billion to hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers over the next five years to help compensate for budget cuts two years ago. As a result of the plan, Medicare beneficiaries could pay an extra dollar in monthly premiums starting next year, officials said.
Despite the general crowing, some lawmakers found fault with the $385 billion bill and the way it was drafted, noting that many lawmakers voted without knowing what was actually in the 2,000-page measure.
"We're going to be haunted by a number of things in this bill," said Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
But with money aplenty for their favorite programs and Clinton and Gephardt squarely promoting the final deal, many Democrats set aside their reservations and voted for the budget.
"This budget is filled with illusions, pushes an enormous amount of problems into next year and has made a shambles of the total budget process--but I'll vote for it," said Rep. Martin O. Sabo (Minn.), a liberal Democrat and former chairman of the Budget Committee.
At the same time, many conservative Republicans, who earlier this year blasted their leadership for spending too much, quietly fell into line yesterday. Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) said GOP leaders for the first time walled off Social Security from spending incursions.
"If you step back and look at the forest for the trees, it's a positive trend," Largent said.
All Maryland and Virginia House members voted for the bill except Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) and Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Va.).
On the other side of the Hill, a brewing revolt erupted. Senators upset with failure to win money or other concessions on issues from environmental rules to dairy pricing policies and rural areas' access to satellite television had already been threatening to hold up must-pass bills, including the huge spending package.
Both Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) tried unsuccessfully to persuade the rebels to back off. At one point, Lott called Kohl and Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.), leaders of the midwestern dairy state revolt, to his office and suggested they agree to a vote early Saturday in exchange for a full day of debate on the issue.
The normally mild-mannered Kohl was infuriated, "as angry as I've ever seen him," according to one of his aides. By midday, as the Senate was about to take up another of its now-daily stopgap spending bills, Kohl rushed to the floor to object, hoping that by raising the specter of a government shutdown he would force Senate leaders to drop the dairy provisions.
As it turned out, Baucus had already signaled he would object because the spending bill did not include funds to promote satellite TV services to rural areas. Lott tried to assure Baucus and other senators from predominantly rural states that the Senate would consider legislation early next year to assure rural service. But Baucus appeared skeptical and formally objected.
Then Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pushed for a vote on their proposal to allow mountaintop coal mining operations to continue dumping waste into rivers and streams. The Byrd-McConnell proposal, broadened to include waste from hard-rock mining in the West, was approved by a 56 to 33 vote, although it was part of a separate bill unlikely to be considered by the House this year.
At one point they joined in a revival-style assault on White House officials for suggesting that the plan would "weaken or undermine" existing environmental protections.
McConnell: "That's simply incorrect, isn't it?"
McConnell: "And they either know it, in which case they are not telling the truth, or they are woefully uninformed."
Byrd: " . . . precisely."
The threat of a one-day government shutdown hovered over the Senate for about three hours before Republicans moved to satisfy Baucus by assuring him of action by the end of next March. Kohl did not get any concessions but said he did not want to use "irresponsible" tactics to fight what he regarded as an "irresponsible" legislative move to sanction price-setting for milk.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, blasted the whole exercise and announced he would vote against the budget bill. "It's full of gimmicks. It is full of foolishness. It contributes to the cynicism of the American people," McCain told reporters in Nashville.