WASHINGTON -- Liberals called it a travesty. Conservatives denounced it as irresponsible. But last night, House lawmakers held their noses, overwhelmingly passed Congress' $500 billion spending bill, then rushed home to campaign for re-election.
Senators are expected to follow suit this morning, despite grave misgivings about the nearly 4,000-page bill that virtually no one in the House had read before lawmakers voted 333-95 for its passage. Sixty-four Republicans and 31 Democrats voted against the spending measure.
Six of the eight House members from Maryland voted for the measure; the two voting against it were Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered a spirited defense of the bill, which was denounced by the conservative wing of his party for including so many election-year goodies that it violated spending curbs to which Congress had agreed.
"In a free society, you have to have give-and-take," Gingrich thundered, chiding "the perfectionist caucus" for its uncompromising stance. "We produced a win-win bill. This is a good bill and it is precisely the way the American system should work."
But few others would openly defend the last-minute, back-room negotiations that produced the measure. Critics complained that besides being fiscally irresponsible, the spending bill -- which is necessary to keep the government running -- was drafted in secret and so hastily that few members were able to study it.
"It was 4,000 pages that, I must confess, I did not have a chance to read before I voted," Cardin said. "That's not the way you legislate. The process stunk."
The spending bill is a classic something-for-everyone grab bag. In his 1988 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan slammed a similarly bloated bill on a lectern and, to raucous cheers, declared he would never sign another catch-all, kitchen-sink tax-and-spending bill again. It was a sentiment echoed last night by House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt and Rep. David M. McIntosh, a conservative Indiana Republican.
Both parties had to concede that they had produced the same kind of legislative blunderbuss that Reagan had denounced.
But it was still likely to meet approval from many voters. Republicans received the first inflation-adjusted increase in defense spending since 1985, as well as money for intelligence and missile defense programs. Democrats received $1.2 billion for 100,000 new elementary school teachers, new environmental programs and $18 billion for the International Monetary Fund.
And, in between, there is plenty of nonpartisan pork: $100 million for a U.S. Capitol visitors center that has languished for a decade; $1.2 million for the relocation of the C&O; Canal visitors center in Cumberland; $20 million in grants and $75 million in loans to buy out ailing fishing operators in Alaska; $475,000 to put on the Women's World Cup soccer tournament; and $600,000 for the World Alpine Ski Championship.
And there are policy changes, large and small. The Mississippi duck-hunting season will be shifted to the end of the year. Chicken producers shortchanged by bankrupt Russian poultry consumers will have relief. And grizzly bears will not be introduced to the mountains of Idaho and Montana.
At the request of its president, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, the American Red Cross will get an additional $30 million. And at a time when Republicans have rebuked the Clinton administration for lax export controls, Boeing Co. will receive permission to sell sophisticated airline navigation equipment to China.
"I'm not going to defend the process, because it has been ugly," conceded Rep. Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. But, he added, "It's important to vote for this bill and go home to explain why we should come back for the 106th Congress."
Because Congress failed to pass eight of the 13 annual spending bills needed to keep the government running, Republican leaders had to negotiate directly with the White House to forge a bill that would fill in nearly a third of the $1.7 trillion federal budget.
The legislation that emerged after nine days of negotiations would shrink the first budget surplus since 1969 by $21 billion, despite both parties' pledges not to touch the expected $71 billion surplus until a long-term Social Security fix can be approved. In the end, that is what enraged conservatives.
"The policy issues are a mixed bag," said Rep. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who voted against the package. "Some things are very bad. Some things are good. The main thing is, it is fiscally irresponsible."
Republican leaders tried last night to highlight their victories: higher defense spending, a new anti-drug initiative, missile defense efforts and a ban on needle-exchange programs for drug addicts in the District of Columbia.
"This is an American victory," Gingrich declared.
But the words of condemnation from the right flank may give Republican leaders pause. The Conservative Caucus, a loose confederation of anti-tax, anti-immigration and anti-abortion organizations, denounced the budget deal yesterday as a "rejection of conservative policies" and called for the removal of Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott next year.
Howard Phillips, the group's chairman, said it "plans a massive grass-roots effort" to do just that.
Coburn offered his own veiled threat, harking back to last year's conservative coup attempt against Gingrich's control of the House.
"There's going to be an accounting for this process," Coburn said of the Republican leadership. "And they're just going to have to deal with that."
Democrats reveled in the Republican divisions. It gave them ample opportunity to drive home their charges that the 105th Congress has been inept, mean-spirited and strikingly unproductive.
"Well, the do-nothing Congress is limping to a pathetic end," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon.
But in the end, the overwhelming vote might serve as a repudiation of the conservative Republican wing and as an endorsement of Gingrich's increasingly accommodating style. Indeed, Gingrich reserved his most caustic comments last night for the fractious conservatives in his party.
"Unless you have a plan you think can get 218 votes here, that can pass through without a filibuster in the Senate and can get a presidential signature, there is no responsible vote but yes," he said.
Pub Date: 10/21/98