With voters watching closely, House is taking big bites from federal budget


WASHINGTON -- One by one, Congress is killing the sacred cows.

The $11 billion Superconducting Super Collider. The $190 million subsidy for wool and mohair producers. These and other pork barrel projects, major and minor, have died in recent days.

The reason? The big political spenders have run head-on into ever-tightening restraints on the federal budget and they have begun to make some tough, painful choices about projects that long had led charmed lives.

The House has voted by big margins in recent weeks to reject legislative compromises with the Senate that included spending on controversial projects.

When House and Senate negotiators agreed to spend hundreds of millions next year on the super collider, the House voted anew to emphatically reject the deal. Its second refusal to pay for the project appears certain to stick, and even the collider's stoutest advocates now admit it's a cooked goose.

House and Senate negotiators agreed yesterday to spend $640 million to pay the cost of terminating the advanced physics project.

With the exception of the so-called entitlement programs -- such as Social Security, food stamps and especially Medicare -- the growth curve for domestic and defense spending is bending downward.

"We've still got a long way to go," said Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn., one of the most passionate of the House's budget-cutters, "but finally you can see a change in course."

The economizing trend started in 1990 with a landmark deal between former Republican President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress to limit spending growth.

Fueled by rising public resentment about runaway budgets, the effort to squeeze spending picked up steam this year. Under current budget goals, the federal government will have spent about $433 billion less by 1998 than might have been spent had nothing changed.

To win congressional approval of his budget plan, President Clinton promised last summer to do even better and the White House is expected to send a list of new budget cuts to Congress within a few days.

White House budget chief Leon Panetta said the new package could lead to some $20 billion in savings over the next five years.

But congressional budgeteers are putting together their own package of cuts, which they say could produce more than $50 billion in savings over the same period. House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., thinks they have got a chance to prevail.

"I'm told it [their package] will have a great many specific reductions in spending," he said, rather than an across-the-board cut. "I don't think you can say out of hand that it's likely to be rejected. There is a strong desire on the part of many members to have some additional spending cuts."

Congress, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., "is responding to the public clamor for a more efficient government."

Most of the impetus for curbing spending has been coming from the House of Representatives, where all members must face the voters next years.

The wool and mohair subsidy is a relic of the Korean War. Critics say it should have been repealed in the mid-1950s. It was finally dumped.

Another spending dinosaur to go was an $18 million subsidy for honey producers. Also slashed was a multimillion-dollar search for extraterrestrial life.

And, when members of the House Appropriations Committee tried to divvy up $285 million in pork barrel spending on highway projects for their own political benefit, the money was re-directed by the House and the committee members were warned that future "earmarking" of transportation projects would be dealt with severely.

Indeed, the word has gone out to congressional appropriators that the long-standing practice of earmarking -- sticking home-state items into spending bills -- will be closely scrutinized from now on.

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