Spending jump likely as U.S. surplus grows

Sunday, September 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – Cushioned by a burgeoning surplus, Congress is poised to approve large increases in spending by federal agencies, pushing the overall budget to record levels.

Top-ranking Republicans predict that the perennial year-end wrangling between Congress and the White House will result in a federal budget for the 2001 fiscal year that allocates at least $614 billion, and probably quite a bit more, for discretionary spending.

That figure would represent a 5 percent increase over the $586 billion Congress approved last year after a heated debate with the Clinton administration that delayed final approval of the last spending bills.

The figure would also exceed the nearly $600 billion that Congress set in April as a ceiling for discretionary spending for the coming fiscal year. Discretionary spending includes everything in the budget except the automatic payments for items such as Social Security benefits and interest payments on the national debt.

"I think everyone recognizes that we're going to have to lift the budget caps," as the limits on discretionary spending are known, said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

A $288 billion measure for the military that includes a 3.7 percent pay raise for soldiers, sailors and aviators has already been approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton, putting Congress well along the path to exceeding the $600 billion mark.

Other bills would pay for foreign aid and nonmilitary domestic items.

In addition to the surplus, the drive for increased spending is fueled by pressure from the White House to agree to some of its priorities as a condition for letting members of Congress leave town for the campaign and by individual lawmakers' demands for fiscal bacon for their districts.

On Friday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert told his Republican colleagues that they should be prepared to loosen the purse strings, said several people who attended the meeting.

Discussions between White House and congressional staffers will begin Monday, although they will just outline priorities and won't engage in substantive negotiations, said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Republicans are worried that they will be drawn into protracted debates with the White House.

Since the government shutdown in 1995, many say that the White House has gained political leverage and could keep upping the ante as the talks progressed.

But GOP leaders also worry that if they give the White House what it wants, they will be deluged by requests from their own members to finance pet projects.

With that in mind, Republican Sen. John McCain said in the party's weekly radio address that Americans should vote out any lawmaker who would undermine the nation's surplus with wasteful spending.

The Arizona senator, a former presidential hopeful, said that Mr. Clinton was not willing to compromise and that the president will do anything to defeat Congress in the annual battle, even at the cost of renewed budget deficits.

Mr. McCain blamed Mr. Clinton for the 1995 government shutdown and said it gave Democrats an excuse to fault the GOP for any budget impasse. That left the president a free hand to push through more spending, he said.

But he also criticized Republicans seeking more spending.

"I'm sorry to say that in past years some of us have bargained our way out of these annual budget battles by surrendering our principles and joining the president in a no-holds-barred race to the pork barrel, figuring that if we can't lick him, we might as well join him," Mr. McCain said.

White House spokesman Joel Johnson said the administration agrees that pork-barrel spending is a problem but that the president will stand firm on his priorities.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.