Budget Deals Sought in Congress

Wednesday, September 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Clinton accused Congress on Wednesday of larding up spending bills with special favors while ignoring serious national needs.

``I am concerned, frankly, about the size and last-minute nature of this year's congressional spending spree,'' Clinton said as he announced revised White House projections showing a federal budget surplus of more than $230 billion this year.

The projection is in line with earlier Congressional Budget Office estimates of a $232 billion surplus for the fiscal year that ends Saturday.

``They seem to be loading up the spending bills with special projects for special interests but can't seem to find the time to raise the minimum wage or pass a patient's bill of rights,'' or several other measures backed by the White House, Clinton said.

Budget bargainers are narrowing differences on a number of issues, but lawmakers facing plenty of unfinished business have given initial approval to a stopgap bill providing extra time for negotiators.

Top administration officials, including White House chief of staff John Podesta, were expected on Capitol Hill Wednesday as the two sides sought agreement on one bill financing federal land programs and another for housing, veterans, the environment and science.

But with Sunday's start of fiscal 2001 looming, the House voted 415-2 Tuesday to keep federal agencies functioning for the first six days of the new year. Senate passage and Clinton's signature were expected later this week.

``There are 535 different opinions on almost any issue,'' said the House Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., referring to members of Congress. ``It takes a while to resolve those differences.''

With leaders hoping to send lawmakers home by mid-October for the presidential and congressional elections, the drive to solve the disputes was being stepped up.

In a concession by the administration, bargainers agreed to block the Transportation Department from issuing a final rule in fiscal 2001 limiting truckers' hours, said an official familiar with the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The department has been working on a rule that would have dropped the maximum number of daily driving hours to 12 from its current 16 in an effort to reduce accidents caused by fatigue. But the proposal has been widely opposed, with the trucking industry and drivers' union complaining it would hurt them economically and safety advocates saying it does not go far enough.

On a separate issue, leading lawmakers of both parties reached a compromise Tuesday to create a major new land conservation program, a proposal that has been one of the biggest remaining budget issues.

The plan would create a six-year program, growing to $3 billion annually by 2005, for federal and state land purchases, wildlife management, historic preservation and other initiatives.

The deal was struck by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top members of the House and Senate resources committees. But it was unclear if the measure would get support from other members of Congress or from the White House.

Clinton has supported a House-passed bill that would provide $3 billion annually for land programs for 15 years.

House-Senate bargainers neared agreement on a $23.6 billion measure financing energy and water projects.

But in a letter, White House chief of staff John Podesta wrote that Clinton would veto the measure if it contained a provision blocking the Army Corps of Engineers from raising water levels on the Missouri River, a fight that has pitted environmentalists against downstream farmers and shippers. Republicans vowed that, at least for now, the provision would stay in the bill.

Even so, in an example of the spending bills' steadily rising price tags, the compromise energy and water measure was $1.9 billion bigger than the House-passed version, and $1.1 billion larger than the Senate bill.

Included were millions for projects included in neither measure, including $3 million for a new water project in DeSoto County, Miss., and $3 million for work on Baltimore's harbor.

Another growing measure was the bill financing housing, veterans, environment and science programs. White House and congressional bargainers were nearing agreement on a compromise that would spend close to the Senate's $108 billion, more than $6 billion higher than what the House approved.

Just two of the 13 annual spending bills for fiscal 2001 have become law.

Several stopgap bills are likely to be needed before all the spending bills can be completed. White House budget office spokeswoman Linda Ricci said Clinton would sign a series of short-term measures ``if that's what it takes for Congress to buckle down and finish its work.''

Voting against the stopgap bill were Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Fortney ``Pete'' Stark, D-Calif.