Eager to pass spending bills, Republicans endanger image; Deadline extension gives Congress more time to fall back on unpopular tactics


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is giving the Republican-led Congress three more weeks to finish the spending bills that were due to be completed tomorrow, but that might not be such a favor.

Republican leaders are so desperate to pass all 13 bills without dipping into the Social Security surplus that they are resorting to tactics considered impolitic just a week ago.

For example, House Majority Leader Dick Armey said yesterday that House leaders have decided to save $8 billion by delaying tax refunds to the working poor -- opening the Republicans to accusations of callousness that they had sought to avoid.

The change would affect about $25 billion distributed annually in a lump sum through the Earned Income Tax Credit program. Beneficiaries earn so little that they have no income tax liability but pay a disproportionately high share of payroll taxes.

Monthly installments

Under the Republican plan, the EITC payments intended to offset those payroll taxes would be spread out in monthly installments -- effectively giving the recipients less because they lose use of the money in the meantime.

"I don't want to quibble over fine points," Armey said. "It's a common-sense way to do this sort of thing. I would say it is denying them lump-sum acceptance of my money."

Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, leveled the charge many Republicans have feared.

"This is a mean-spirited attempt of the Republican leadership to take out its frustrations about the budget on those working families of modest means," Rangel said.

Republicans in the Senate have already made clear that they will reject that proposal long before Clinton has a chance to veto it.

But House leaders have made the passage of their spending bills, without the use of Social Security money, their top priority, even if differences with the Senate or the likelihood of presidential vetoes means they will never become law.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has already failed in his one major promise -- to complete the budget work on time. Because of House delays, only one of the 13 has been signed into law by Clinton. Most of the others are still in negotiation with the Senate, and the largest of the 13 is not scheduled to reach the House floor until next week.

Republicans leaders have also failed in their subsequent promise to keep their spending bills within the ceilings required under the 1997 balanced-budget law.

Republicans have retreated to keeping the Social Security trust fund off-limits in an effort to protect themselves from a political accusation that Democrats have historically found potent: that many Republicans don't really care about Social Security.

"After 15 years of turning to the Social Security reserve every year, we're stopping that," said Rep. John Edward Porter, an Illinois Republican.

But yesterday, as the House and Senate passed and sent to Clinton a bill that would extend the budget deadline until Oct. 21, Democrats asserted that the Republicans were simply putting off their ultimate day of reckoning.

"We haven't been able to finish on time because the money doesn't exist to fund all the Republican priorities," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. "This process at the end of the year is about as disorganized and messy as any I've seen in the years I've been in Congress."

Indeed, the Republicans' solemn pledge to protect the Social Security surplus has already been violated by nearly $27 billion.

"I'm not allowed to say 'lie' on the House floor, so I call it the 'giant fib,' " Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, said of a Republican resolution the House passed yesterday declaring its commitment to leaving the Social Security money intact.

In a hurry to get out

It is the Republicans who are almost breathless to finish their work and get out of town, and Clinton who has continually urged them not to "throw in the towel."

He wants the Congress to stay in session to work on his priorities -- such as adding a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program. But with the Democrats hoping to win back control of Congress next year, he and his fellow Democrats also don't mind watching the Republicans squirm.

"Clearly, there is a political objective here: The longer the Republicans stay around, the worse they look," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat.

Clinton has all the leverage in the budget negotiations because the Republicans fear that they will be blamed if the government is forced to shut down, as they were during the shutdown of 1995.

Meanwhile, the longer Congress stays in session, the more pressure might build for action on regulating managed health care plans, campaign finance reform and gun control -- all issues that play better for the Democrats.

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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