WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders will ask their members to vote today for a 1.4 percent cut in most government spending proposed for next year.
If approved, the across-the-board cuts are expected to be vetoed by President Clinton and run the risk of opening the Republicans to criticism for cutting popular programs.
The move would let the Republicans finish their budget work without raising taxes or borrowing from the Social Security trust fund.
"We can see the goal line now," said Tony Rudy, a top aide to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas. "It's too soon to know how it will turn out, but in terms of position, we couldn't ask for much more."
The cuts -- which in most cases would only slow the rate of increase in federal programs -- would produce $4.5 billion in savings in fiscal 2000. The money would come from the Pentagon and social programs but would not affect federal salaries or benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
It was the last choice among a variety of options -- including slowing tax refunds for the poor -- that GOP leaders considered but rejected.
House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri called the plan a "crazy, mindless, across-the-board cut which will not pick the right priorities."
If Clinton vetoes the bill -- he has said he would because it squeezes programs too tightly -- GOP leaders say, he would have to accept responsibility for finding a way to pay for any additional spending he wants, which is the objective of their strategy.
"We'd just say, 'Mr. President, if you want to spend more money, tell us how we're going to pay for it,' " House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois said in a television interview Sunday.
The Republican proposal has been attached to the last of 13 spending bills Congress must approve to finance the government for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. A stopgap spending measure is to expire Friday.
Persuading all House Republicans to vote for cuts in popular programs -- even if the reductions aren't likely to materialize -- might not be easy.
It's also unclear whether Republicans in the Senate will go along.
Much of the spending that would be affected has been provided for in bills Clinton has signed into law for such popular items as veterans' facilities, disaster relief for farmers, environmental and housing programs, and the space program.
"We'll have trouble with the ones we usually have trouble with," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, referring to GOP moderates. "But if it keeps us out of the Social Security surplus, it's worth doing."
The Social Security surplus has become a political line in the sand for both parties. After decades of routinely using the surplus in Social Security taxes to finance other government programs, Democrats and Republicans now say they have sworn off the practice. Each party, however, charges the other with cheating.
The argument is further complicated by a dispute over where the line in the sand is: Congressional and White House budget projections differ.
Clinton is trying to shift the focus of the debate to argue that the GOP strategy doesn't "save" Social Security by adding to its resources, which are expected to be drained as baby boomers retire.
The president backed away yesterday from a long-shot strategy by the Democrats that called for him to veto the defense spending bill as a pressure tactic.
Democratic strategists thought better of the plan after some party members said they didn't want to have to vote against the popular measure to sustain the president's veto.
"It's very important that we meet our commitments to our national security, to our servicemen, both at home and around the world," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said in announcing Clinton's plan to sign the $267 billion defense measure today.
The fiscal 2000 defense spending bill boosts funds for military operations, provides a pay raise for service personnel and keeps the embattled F-22 stealth fighter program alive.
The president plans to veto a much smaller spending bill that finances the Commerce, State and Justice departments, Lockhart said.
That would leave eight of the 13 spending bills signed into law, three vetoed and two awaiting final action.