Bush, Congress unable to agree on more funding for U.S. cities Deficit concerns, election fears are blocking action.


WASHINGTON -- Despite insistent calls for more aid to the nation's inner cities in the wake of last week's riots in Los Angeles, the White House and Congress have all but given up on providing substantial new funds this year, say administration and congressional officials.

A political knot of deficit concerns and election-year fears, which loosened in the first days following the riots, has tightened again, making action virtually impossible, according to these officials.

"I don't think the chances" for major new funds "are very good. There isn't the will to do that," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif., chairman of the House Budget Committee, speaking in an interview.

"Where do we get the money?" asked Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., of the House Democratic leader.

Such worries have done nothing to stem the flow of high-priced proposals for a new assault on poverty and urban decay. At least a half-dozen congressional plans are already afloat, including a call by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., for $5 billion in emergency spending over the next five months.

But a variety of Capitol Hill leaders and administration officials rated chances for passage of any of these measures as nil.

In fact, Congress seems increasingly likely to head in the opposite direction by passing an amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced budget, a measure being promoted by many as a block to new spending on social programs. Ratification of the amendment by the states would force a sharp cutback in federal spending, which is expected to run more than $350 billion in the red this fiscal year.

"It's an inherent contradiction. You can't support the amendment and argue for significant new spending at the same time," said Mr. Panetta.

About the most that is likely to emerge from Washington in the wake of the riots, according to officials, is between $500 million and $1 billion in new aid, generally in the form of disaster relief and low-cost loans to rebuild burned-out businesses.

President Bush has announced $600 million in loans and grants, but said the money must come from the existing budget and not from new spending. Mr. Bush and other administration officials have signaled they will oppose big-ticket proposals for the nation's cities, calling them too costly and ineffective.

Washington's unwillingness to act against problems that commentators say were exposed by the riots is only the latest example of a political stalemate that has afflicted the capital for much of the last year. Since January, the White House and Congress have fought to a draw over a much-ballyhooed middle class tax cut and a widely touted "peace dividend" from defense cuts.

Part of the problem is technical. A 1990 budget agreement between the administration and Congress makes it hard to boost or shift spending except to cut the deficit, making any decisive action unlikely.

But some analysts said the problem represents a crisis of confidence in government's capacity to tackle the nation's major problems.

"I've never seen anything like it," said one prominent Hill staff member. "Bush is befuddled, and we can't agree on anything."

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