WASHINGTON -- Facing a tumultuous fall term that could have the government perched for months on the brink of shutting down, the Senate raced through its summer business yesterday hoping to begin a three-week recess after today.
The senators moved last night toward approval of a $243 billion ** spending bill to finance the Pentagon next year. The bill, which is expected to pass this morning, represents a $1 billion increase over last year's defense spending and a $6.4 billion boost over what President Clinton had requested.
Much of the extra money would be spent on new or expanded weapons systems, including a "star wars"-like space-based missile-defense system.
Earlier yesterday, the Senate voted 98-1 to approve a $12.4 billion transportation spending bill, $1.2 billion less than last year's. The reductions would come largely from subsidies for Amtrak, other mass transit systems and highway programs. Such cuts would have a big effect on cities in the Northeast corridor, including Baltimore.
Passage of the two bills would mean that the Senate would have completed work on seven of the 13 spending bills that must be enacted by start of the next fiscal year, on Oct. 1, to keep the government open and meeting its payroll.
Republicans are racing to meet the Oct. 1 deadline to escape blame if the GOP-led Congress and the Democratic president can't agree on spending priorities and the government is forced to shut down temporarily.
"There's been a lot of talk about a train wreck in this town on Oct. 1," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. "We want all these bills -- if we can possibly do it -- down to the president by Oct. 1. We want the president to know the Congress has done its work on time."
Despite Mr. Dole's efforts, though, partisan conflict over the budget -- including such volatile issues as shrinking the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs while cutting taxes -- could continue throughout the fall.
"It is a multidimensional chess game that will be played out over a several-month period, probably with a series of small train wrecks before the big one," predicted David Mason, a congressional analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that is working closing with the Republican majority. "It's going to be an exciting fall."
Federal employees -- who stand to lose paychecks if the government shuts down because of a political standoff -- may find it more harrowing than exciting. But history suggests that the breaks don't last long.
There have been nine government shutdowns since 1980, when the practice of spending without specific congressional authority ended.
The most recent one occurred over the three-day Columbus Day weekend in 1990, while President George Bush, a Republican, was dueling with the Democratic-led Congress. Only nonessential services were affected, and most federal offices were closed for the holiday anyway.
All other shutdowns occurred during the Reagan administration, when the Republican president was regularly at odds with the Democrats on Capitol Hill. During that period, the federal government shut down twice for three-day weekends. The other breaks lasted one or two days, almost always on weekends.
The Oct. 1 deadline is not likely to be the critical showdown this year. Republican leaders expect the crunch to come in late October or November, when they must deal with a bill to raise the limit on how much the government can borrow to pay its bills.
The GOP plan is to pass as many of the 13 spending bills as possible by Oct. 1. Mr. Clinton has threatened to veto them. If all 13 aren't passed by the Oct. 1 deadline, the Republicans will probably pass a stop-gap measure to gain a few more weeks to complete their work.
The president also could veto a temporary spending measure, and he might do so if he thinks it would give him bargaining leverage.
After the 13 separate spending bills, though, comes the even more critical "reconciliation bill," which will make the policy changes in Medicare, Medicaid and tax cuts that form the basis of the Republican effort to balance the budget within seven years.
Republican leaders plan to attach this measure to legislation to lift the debt ceiling -- thus raising the stakes considerably if Mr. Clinton chooses to veto it. If the debt ceiling measure isn't passed on time, the government could default on its bills, which has never happened before.
Adding another dash of spice to the mix, Mr. Dole has threatened to put his proposal to overhaul the welfare system on the "reconciliation" bill, which cannot be filibustered.
The majority leader had to give up on trying to pass the welfare bill this week for lack of support, even within his own party. At the end of the fall drama, though, agreement is expected to be reached on many fronts, if only because it is in the best interest of Mr. Clinton as well as the Republicans to do so.
"I think it will be a quantitatively productive Congress," said Stephen J. Hess, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "The sides are not that far apart on issues like welfare reform."
"And when you're talking about money, it's easy: You just split the difference."
That won't be easy. The 11 spending bills passed so far by the House, and the seven that have moved through the Senate, represent a drastic shift in priorities from those that prevailed in Congress during the 40 years of Democratic control. The Senate votes to boost defense spending while cutting mass transit subsidies tell part of the tale.
An even clearer picture of differences is offered by two social spending measures approved this summer by the House that will contribute the bulk of the $22 billion first installment that is needed to reach the balanced-budget target for this year.
In addition to the spending cuts, the House Republicans have tried to limit the enforcement power of regulatory agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, which are favorites of Mr. Clinton.
"I don't think he's going to be too sympathetic to that," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said of Mr. Clinton.
"About Nov. 22, things are going to start getting serious around here," Mr. Rockefeller added, predicting that it might finally take a summit at Camp David for the president and Congress to come to terms. "But we'll work it out. We have to."