Under a plan devised by Senate Republican leaders, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration would receive the full $13.5 billion sought by President Clinton for the agency.
Though the issue is still far from final resolution, the Senate action almost certainly protects the Maryland-based space facility from layoffs or canceled contracts, as some had feared.
Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, a member of the appropriations subcommittee that approved the additional spending, thanked Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, the committee chairman, for devising a scheme to free funds for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other pet projects of panel members.
Republicans are under enormous pressure to avoid deep cuts in federal spending required to meet ceilings set by the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. The NASA cuts alone unleashed a fierce lobbying campaign by members of both parties, and they were approved by the House only after Republican leaders there promised to seek Senate help in finding more money.
Stevens' plan would tap $25 billion or more from a projected budget surplus over the next two years. He told reporters Tuesday that he would probably take the money from the defense budget. The Pentagon, in turn, would be reimbursed with "emergency" funds that aren't restricted by the balanced-budget requirements.
Still awaiting action in both houses is the largest of the 13 spending bills, which finances the giant departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. Available funds for that bill are at least $16 billion short of what GOP leaders believe they need to pass it.
Democrats, led by Vice President Al Gore, were quick to deride Republicans for using "financial gymnastics" to try to slip out from under the spending ceilings.
"They have a responsibility to act responsibly," said Gore, who went on to urge Republicans to join the White House in supporting additional spending on a prescription drug program for Medicare recipients.
Leaders of the two parties are beginning to engage in what could be the first steps in an elaborate deal-making dance over budget and tax issues. Neither Congress nor the White House, however, seems confident that their tango will end in the sort of grand bargain that was struck in 1997.
Yesterday, Republicans finally sent to President Clinton the $792 billion tax cut bill they passed before the summer recess, which Clinton plans to veto.
"Please reconsider the veto and sign the bill to give tax relief to the American people," urged Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican who helped craft the sweeping package, which includes a 1 percentage point reduction in federal income tax rates.
But Republican leaders, aware that Americans don't seem eager for a tax cut that might take money from popular social programs, have given up on pressuring Clinton into signing even a shrunken version of their bill this year.
"He had [the public] convinced because he took the time to be shrill in his criticism and threaten a veto going back six weeks ago," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
"But we'll give him another chance next year to sign a good bill that's got growth in it and fairness in it," Lott added. "And if he vetoes it then, then the next president will have the opportunity."
Rep. Bill Archer, a Texas Republican, warned, however, that there may not be anything left of the budget surplus by that point.
"If we don't give back the overcharge, Washington politicians will most surely spend it -- like some Hollywood star on Rodeo Drive," Archer said. "Pay close attention to what happens over the next 60 days, and I think you'll see I'm right."
House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich has begun working with a handful of fiscal conservatives to reimpose some discipline on the budget process. The Ohio Republican, alarmed that his party appears ready to break the spending ceilings he helped craft in 1997, says he is not optimistic about the outcome.
As they struggle to comply with the spending ceilings, GOP leaders are trying to downplay the significance of those limits. More important, they say, is their pledge to avoid spending any of the surplus in the Social Security Trust Fund.
"There won't be one dime of Social Security money for purposes other than Social Security in the year 2000," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey. "That's not happened in 40 years."
Pub Date: 9/16/99