WASHINGTON -- Congressional and White House negotiators moved toward breaking their logjam yesterday, pledging to complete a budget deal by today even as they squabbled over spending priorities with elections three weeks away.
Two weeks into the government's new fiscal year, Congress was again forced to pass a short-term funding extension to keep the government running through tomorrow. It was the third such stopgap resolution to be approved since September.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said that they will have a bill ready for the president's expected signature by tomorrow and that Congress would likely recess on Thursday. But House Democrats said negotiations might stretch through the week.
"If we brought this package to the [House] floor as is, it would blow sky high," said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Clinton urged Republicans to embrace his education priorities, while Republicans accused Democrats of stretching out the budget impasse for political gain. Democrats believe the longer they can keep Congress debating favorable issues, such as education, the more points they can score with voters weary of scandal.
"I know there's an election coming, but members of Congress can return home to campaign knowing that they put progress ahead of partisanship on the important issue of education," Clinton said. "We need 21st-century schools where teachers can teach and students can learn."
Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, said: "The president is using the education issue because it's a popular issue that hits home with the American people."
Democrats sense that they have the political advantage. With congressional elections near, Republicans are eager to leave Washington and hit the campaign trail.
Recent polls indicate that the public is angry at the way the Republican-led Congress has handled the president's potential impeachment. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday showed that Congress' approval rating had slipped since Thursday, when the House approved an impeachment inquiry. Late last month, 52 percent of Americans polled said they approved of how Congress was doing its job. By the weekend, the figure had slipped to 45 percent, while Clinton's job approval rating inched up, from 63 percent to 67 percent.
Sixty-two percent said they disapproved of how Republicans in Congress are handling the impeachment issue.
"Right now, there's no reason to vote Democrat," insisted Frank Luntz, a Republican political strategist. "But if Republicans come across as too strident, we could see a voter backlash."
Democrats say they can deliver a one-two punch by hammering their opponents for "short-changing" education -- specifically, by resisting Clinton's proposal to pay for up to 100,000 new teachers while subsidizing school construction and repair.
"Republicans are playing the usual 'pretend you are a Democrat for a day' on education," Obey said.
Republicans say they are determined to keep that from happening and that to defuse the budget issue, they know they must compromise with the president.
President driving agenda
Remarkably, a president facing only the third formal impeachment inquiry in history is calling the shots in Congress. Republicans have indicated that they will likely fund many of Clinton's education initiatives, as well as a $7 billion farm rescue package.
Of the 13 annual spending bills, two have been signed by the president. Four others have cleared the Republican-majority Congress. Seven bills have not passed Congress and will have to be folded into the omnibus spending package that is near completion.
"We have no alternative" but to give in to his demands, conceded Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We do have an election coming in three weeks. These people up for election have to get home."
Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House, argued that Clinton has been disengaged from his own (( policy proposals all year, distracted by scandal and personal concerns. Only when Congress was set to go home did Clinton re-emerge -- to great effect, DeLay conceded.
"Even though he doesn't lift a finger to do anything, he can put his finger around the pen that vetoes" the spending package, DeLay said. "And we realize that."
Republican leaders say they were particularly irked that Clinton dispatched his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, to negotiate with them yesterday, while the president flew to New York to raise money for Rep. Charles E. Schumer, who is challenging Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato for D'Amato's seat. Schumer is one of the senior Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether to draft articles of impeachment against the president.
Lott said: "We have sort of a part-time president and a full-time fund-raiser."
But Obey noted that Republicans had complained just days ago that Clinton was too involved with the budget process. Now, Obey said, they are complaining that he is too detached.
Republicans have been thrown on the defensive. But they have begun trying to gain strength at the bargaining table.
With Democrats accusing Republicans of short-changing education proposals, Republicans fought back yesterday, arguing that Democrats were seeking money for unpopular programs such as needle exchanges for intravenous drug users or family planning programs that fund forced abortions in China.
Progress toward accord
But behind the rancor, progress has been made. The Clinton administration has been demanding about $3 billion extra in spending, including $1.1 billion to hire elementary school teachers and money for dealing with climate change, aid to Russia and other proposals, such as using statistical sampling to supplement head counts in the 2000 census.
Republicans had been offering nearly $2.5 billion, but with different priorities. They proposed $1.1 billion that states could use to hire teachers or take other steps to reduce class size. They were offering half the $46 million that Clinton wanted for food safety and none of the $100 million he wanted for toxic waste cleanups.
$18 billion for IMF
In a big step forward, Republican leaders agreed to grant the International Monetary Fund nearly $18 billion that the lending organization says it needs to stave off the global economic crisis. The White House appears ready to accept Republican conditions on that money, including a ban on below-market interest rates that Republicans say have encouraged reckless investments.
Lott said the Republicans also will give Clinton nearly $1 billion to pay long-delinquent dues to the United Nations. But to spend the money, the president would have to agree to policy changes, including a restructuring of the State Department, and possibly a ban on funding international family planning groups that promote abortion.
Still, congressional leaders were upbeat last night.
"We've reached many tentative, possible agreements, none of which count until we finish up the whole thing," Gingrich said. Yet he predicted that a package would be ready for approval by tonight or tomorrow.
Pub Date: 10/13/98