President Clinton and Republicans on Capitol Hill are barreling toward another bitter confrontation over the budget, even as Congress struggles to move legislation designed to avert another government shutdown next week.
The House, in a cliffhanging vote of 209 to 206, approved a bill Thursday to keep nine Cabinet departments operating after their budgets expire next week. The White House has already threatened to veto the omnibus measure because it does not provide more money for some of Clinton's pet programs, such as national service, education and environmental protection.
But the close House vote makes plain how hard it will be to draft a compromise acceptable to both the administration and the fragile GOP majority in the House. Crossing party lines to oppose the bill were 21 Republican defectors, including many moderates who said that the bill cut too much from social programs as well as some conservatives who said it cut too little.
Especially controversial among conservatives were provisions intended as an olive branch to Clinton--$3.3 billion for top administration priorities. While that was too much for some conservatives, it was not enough for the administration, which also objected because the money would not be available unless Clinton agrees to a broader deficit-reduction deal of the sort that has eluded the White House and Congress for months.
"There is no doubt that we're once again racing toward a confrontation that will shut government down in a way that we were told would not happen again," warned Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
In other action Thursday, however, Republicans moved to avoid clashing on another budget front when the House and Senate easily passed legislation to increase the federal debt limit. The increase extends the government's borrowing authority until March 29. The measure is needed to avoid a government default because the Treasury estimates that it will otherwise run out of borrowing authority on March 21.
Republican leaders said they wanted more time to decide what budget-cutting proposals they will try to attach to a long-term extension of borrowing authority. They are considering adding a proposal endorsed by the National Governors Assn. to overhaul welfare and Medicaid, but the GOP has been bitterly divided over whether or how to proceed with that plan.
The latest maneuvering shows how much the balance of power has shifted since last year, when Republicans freely dispensed threats to shut down the government and throw it into default to get their way.
Now they are doing what was once unthinkable--passing a debt-ceiling increase with no strings attached. And in the omnibus spending bill, they are trying to lure Clinton--not bully him--into accepting a budget agreement by offering additional funding for social programs.
The budget fight between Congress and the White House has receded from the public eye ever since negotiations over a plan to balance the budget collapsed in January. The issue has resurfaced because Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling and extend spending authority for federal agencies whose regular 1996 appropriations have not been approved. Those agencies are now operating under a short-term measure that expires March 15.
The omnibus spending measure was approved by the House only after Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other GOP leaders twisted arms to stem GOP defections. The bill would extend spending authority through the end of the current fiscal year for the departments of State, Commerce and Justice, as well as several major domestic policy agencies. It would set spending for most programs at levels Republicans proposed earlier in appropriations bills Clinton had vetoed.
In recent negotiations with the GOP, Clinton aides have insisted on $8 billion more for domestic programs. As initially proposed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), the bill would have provided another $3.3 billion for education, environmental protection and other programs favored by Clinton--but only if the administration agreed to savings in other areas to offset the costs.
That contingency was not enough to satisfy conservative Republicans, who demanded more exacting conditions in exchange for funding Clinton's priorities.
Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) won approval of an amendment that makes release of the $3.3 billion contingent on Clinton reaching a broader budget agreement. He said the administration "should not be able to spend their honey pot of money until they agree to real Medicare reform, real welfare reform."
But even that amendment was not enough to satisfy some conservative Republicans who voted against the bill, according to a House leadership aide.
The administration, however, objects to any conditions on the money. "Funding for these priority programs should be provided directly and not made contingent upon a set of conditions being met in the future," the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.
The bill also includes antiabortion provisions and other policy riders opposed by Clinton. An effort to strip one of those measures--which would allow states to deny Medicaid funding for abortions in cases of rape and incest--was rejected by the House on a 222-198 vote.
Some moderates voted against the bill because of the antiabortion provision and because they wanted more money for social programs.
But the leadership kept some moderates on board by promising that their concerns would be addressed later, when the final bill is drafted by a House-Senate conference committee. "We'll work things out in conference," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.). "Our friends in the Senate will save us from ourselves."
The Senate is scheduled to take up a companion bill next week that differs sharply from the House measure in many respects.
The legislation does not include the antiabortion riders and is much more generous to Clinton's priorities. It allots nearly $1 billion for Clinton's anti-crime initiative to put more police officers on the streets and $386 million for his national service program.