House Backs Cut in Defense, May Miss Deficit Cap


The Democrat-run House narrowly approved a $1.2-trillion budget Tuesday that throws a hard punch at President Bush’s defense spending plan but could fall far short of hitting a deficit reduction target required by law.

Republican leaders asserted that the Democratic resolution would do “irreparable harm” to the nation’s military, and not a single Republican voted for the measure, which carried by 218 to 208.

At the same time, Republican leaders dropped plans to force a vote on Bush’s January budget request, prompting ridicule from Democrats.

“This is, in effect, a quiet, if secret, repudiation of the President’s proposals . . . so that there would not be the embarrassment of a very, very low vote on the minority side,” House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) declared.


Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, retorted that the President’s budget was withdrawn because changing economic conditions had made it and the Democratic alternative incapable of complying with the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law.

“It seemed ridiculous to allow members to delude themselves that they can get away with minimum sacrifices called for under both budgets,” Frenzel said. “We’re going to have to stop eating cream puffs and begin biting bullets if we’re going to get anywhere.”

The House-passed measure, which must be reconciled with a Senate version still being drafted, calls for slashing Bush’s defense request by $7.8 billion as part of a scheme to reduce the federal deficit by $36 billion in fiscal 1991.

The resolution sketches a way for Congress to ensure by Oct. 1 that the deficit will be lowered to $64 billion over the next 12 months, as required by the Gramm-Rudman statute. If the target is missed, however, across-the-board spending cuts will take effect automatically, preventing Congress and the Administration from tailoring reductions to program needs.

As suggested by Frenzel, a growing number of economists believe that the House plan may be obsolete already. As much as $20 billion more in savings could be needed to comply with Gramm-Rudman because of higher interest rates and a slowed economy, according to Budget Director Richard G. Darman.

Thus, the House measure is likely just the Democrats’ opening bid in eventual negotiations with the Administration to avoid automatic spending cuts. Increasingly, key members of Congress and the Administration are calling for “summit” talks to forge a deficit reduction compromise outside the cumbersome congressional budget process.

“I think eventually there will be discussions with the Administration . . . . This is the first step,” Foley told reporters hours before the House approved its budget plan.

Thirty-four Democrats broke ranks to join all 174 Republicans in opposing the resolution. Democratic leaders built a fragile majority by arguing that their plan was only a starting point in lengthy negotiations with the Senate and the Administration. That brought around conservatives who wanted to cut defense less and liberals who wanted to cut it more.

Contrary to what the leaders suggested, though, the defense numbers--the most important figures in the budget--bear teeth. The numbers will guide two key House committees that are drafting detailed recommendations to reshape Pentagon forces in light of significantly relaxed East-West tensions.

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), head of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, worked out the figures with Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley), chairman of the Budget Committee.

The resolution calls for 1991 defense outlays of $295.5 billion, or $7.8 billion less than Bush’s request. The measure also recommends that long-term spending commitments, known as “budget authority,” be held to $283 billion--$23.9 billion less than Bush proposed. The two figures suggest that a “peace dividend” would be small at first but very large in later years.

The House plan calls for using half the dividend to lower the deficit and half to expand spending on health, education and other domestic programs that were cut sharply in the last decade.

In a foreshadowing of defense battles ahead, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) charged that the Democratic plan would force “decimating cuts” in troop levels and weapons programs. But Murtha contended that, with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe, the United States could afford to withdraw 100,000 more troops from the continent than proposed by Bush in 1991 and could substantially reduce new weapons purchases.

FRUSTRATING PROCESS--Passing a federal budget isn’t as easy as it might appear tosecond-graders. A5