Clinton, Congress Divided on Bills

Tuesday, September 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Clinton and Congress are at loggerheads over 11 of the 13 spending bills needed to keep federal agencies open, just six days from the start of the new fiscal year.

But in contrast to the fiery budget clash that precipitated two government shutdowns five years ago, the ideological divide between the two parties is murkier today. With Republicans moving rapidly toward Clinton's positions on many issues, and with just six weeks until voters decide who will control the White House and Congress next year, a cataclysmic budget showdown does not seem in the cards.

Instead, with little tumult, Clinton and lawmakers plan to enact legislation by week's end keeping civil servants at work through Oct. 6. That measure — the first of several stopgap bills that may be needed — will give the two sides an extra week to sort through Clinton's call for about $20 billion more than Republicans want for domestic programs and foreign aid, and fights over mining, hiring teachers, workplace injuries and other issues.

``Shutting down the government doesn't enhance the standing of Congress or the president,'' said Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute, a private social policy research group. ``The Republican leadership in Congress appears kinder and gentler than it was in 1995 and 1996, and if the president is too belligerent, he could find that it backfires on him.''

With negotiations on remaining bills under way, most of the retreating is being done by Republicans, who want to send lawmakers home for elections that they hope will retain GOP majorities in the House and Senate. Having already added billions of dollars to initial versions of spending measures, GOP leaders are prepared to add billions more — and drop some controversial provisions called riders — as the price for leaving town.

``The money in most cases is resolvable,'' Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Monday in a brief interview. ``Our instructions to the appropriators are to take all riders out ... so we can complete our work.''

Congress' appropriations committees write the spending bills. The 11 remaining bills control about $300 billion, roughly one-sixth of the overall $1.8 trillion federal budget.

While Lott acknowledged that some riders won't be dropped because their authors won't allow it, Lott said the leaders' approach is, ``Don't ask for conflict, resolve as many issues as you can.''

Even so, Lott said the GOP believes it has the political winner on some of the fights over legislative provisions. These include the Republican plan to provide more flexibility for local decisions than Clinton wants for federal aid for hiring teachers and rebuilding schools.

The White House has most of the leverage in the talks because of Congress' eagerness to leave town and because many of the disputes — such as over schools and the environment — are on issues where polls show the voters generally favor Democrats. Even so, leery of triggering a showdown for which they might be blamed by the public, administration bargainers are showing some flexibility, too.

``We've never said we need 100 percent of the dollars we've asked for,'' White House budget director Jack Lew told reporters last week.

Back in 1995, the GOP's first in control of Congress in four decades, Republicans set cutting taxes, balancing the budget by 2002 and trimming federal spending as their chief goals.

Amid battles with Clinton and beset by internal divisions, Republicans only sent two of the 13 annual measures to Clinton by Oct. 1. Most of the rest became enmeshed in the bitter budget fight that produced federal shutdowns from Nov. 14 to 19 and again from Dec. 16 to Jan. 6, 1996. Republicans said beforehand that they would use shutdowns as a weapon in the budget fight, and the public mostly blamed them when the Grand Canyon National Park and other popular government services were shuttered.

Since then, Republicans have gone all out to avoid federal shutdowns, and each year has ended in a similar pattern: Closed-door negotiations in which Clinton demands extra billions in spending, and gets much of it.

This year, the battle lines between the two parties are especially hard to define, with the biggest question not whether to cut spending, but how much to increase it.

The Republican plan to use 90 percent of next year's projected surplus to reduce the national debt in effect leaves up to $41 billion to pay for next year's spending increases and tax cuts — probably more than enough to pay for everyone's demands.

So far, the only two spending bills signed into law are measures financing defense programs.