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Senate Democrats Scramble to Defend Clinton Stimulus Plan From GOP Attack : Economy: Republicans say millions would be wasted on pork. But the majority party says targets of the complaints are not even in the package.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Democrats in the Senate scrambled Tuesday to protect President Clinton’s $16.3-billion emergency stimulus package from strong attacks by Republican lawmakers, who argued that millions of dollars would be squandered on public swimming pools, ice rinks, golf courses, tennis courts and other pork-barrel spending.

Senate Democrats countercharged that GOP senators were trying to embarrass the President before his meeting this weekend with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin by attacking “phantom” projects that are not even in the stimulus package. The Democrats managed to keep the package intact despite a temporary Republican victory.

The skirmishing came as the Democratic leadership in the Senate pushed hard for a vote on the stimulus package and the five-year, $1.5-trillion budget resolution before the Easter recess. Hanging in the air was a threat by Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) to keep the Senate in session next week, if necessary, to get approval. The debate will resume today.

“I don’t want to see the President meet with the Russian president with this bill mired in a filibuster,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), floor manager for the controversial measure.

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Meanwhile, Clinton’s economic program advanced on another front when Senate and House negotiators reached agreement on a five-year budget resolution designed to reduce the deficit by $496 billion through a series of tax increases and spending cuts.

The resolution, which now will be returned to the Senate and House for ratification, expected this week, generally follows the program that Clinton advanced in his address to a joint session of Congress last month.

Although few details were available, the compromise would retain the House provision to keep discretionary spending below present levels from fiscal years 1994 to 1998. It also would scrap the Senate’s plan for bigger tax increases than the House version and would modify a House-approved cut in cost-of-living allowances for federal retirees.

The agreement came less than 12 hours after the Senate-House conference committee met for the first time, reflecting the Administration’s desire to get swift approval for the spending blueprint before the scheduled recess.

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By contrast, the highly partisan battle being waged on the stimulus package in the Senate has focused on less than 1% of the total outlays that would be authorized by the legislation, which has been touted by Clinton as essential insurance against another dip into recession.

Most of the funds would be earmarked for highway building, mass transit projects, a summer jobs program, year-round Head Start, small-business loans and other programs designed to increase employment and pump additional life into the economy.

The key series of votes began late Monday night, when the Clinton forces lost a contest--by a slim 48-44 total--over a GOP amendment that would have knocked $105 million from the package for 54 projects. The Republicans deemed the projects wasteful but likely, nonetheless, to be carried out by local recipients of community development block grants.

The Democrats succeeded Tuesday in reversing that vote, 52 to 48. But the slim margin of victory, with five Democrats bucking heavy pressure to cross party lines and vote with a solid GOP minority, not only failed to slow the Republican offensive, but also appeared to spur GOP efforts.

Later Tuesday, Republicans launched a second offensive to remove $2.5 billion allocated for community development block grants. That effort also was defeated, 54 to 43.

Debate over the stimulus plan, which began Thursday, took a highly partisan tone as Republicans accused the Clinton Administration of preparing to dish up federal pork to communities as a political reward rather than a means of spurring the economy.

“There are 396 outrageous projects on the ‘ready list,’ ” charged Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), referring to a list compiled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and cited by Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros as examples of how community development funds would be spent.

Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.), who compiled the list of 54 projects that Republicans cited as wasteful, said they would cost a total of $105 million of the $2.5 billion allocated for the block grants. Republicans argued that they would not stimulate the economy and would add to the burgeoning federal deficit.

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Among the projects were construction of a large community recreation center and indoor swimming pool in riot-battered South-Central Los Angeles, and a dozen other recreation projects in California. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) passionately defended the list, saying local leaders already had evaluated the projects and found them worthwhile.

Directly challenging Gramm, she said: “If there was ever a need for a community center, it’s in South-Central Los Angeles.”

But other Democrats said the 54 projects are not assured of getting funds. Even so, Democratic leaders rushed to provide political cover for concerned colleagues. Byrd attached language to provide that all projects funded by the stimulus package would be authorized only by Budget Director Leon E. Panetta and publicized in advance in the Federal Register so that opponents could air their protests.

Meanwhile, the Administration outlined to Congress a revised version of its proposal to expand an existing tax credit designed to help the working poor. Supporters said the new earned-income tax credit plan would accomplish the Administration’s initial goal of lifting all families of four, with at least one member working full time, above the federal poverty line.

“The original proposal did not meet the President’s goal of lifting poor families out of poverty, but the final proposal does,” said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Under the revised proposal, the government would provide tax credits of up to $3,371 to qualifying families. Families with so little income that they have no tax liability would receive checks from the government in lieu of the tax credit. Administration officials explained the changes to a House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.


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