House OKs spending challenge; Clinton, CBO dispute Social Security claim


WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives narrowly passed the last spending bill of the year yesterday, an $85 billion measure for labor, health and education programs, along with a 0.97 percent across-the-board cut in federal spending. The cut creates on paper a budget that does not tap into Social Security funds.

President Clinton said the budget preserves Social Security funds only as the result of "smoke and mirrors" -- creative accounting by Republican lawmakers -- that have "totally bumfuzzled" American voters.

He was supported in that argument by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which said yesterday that the Republicans are actually $17 billion over their spending limits and into Social Security funds.

Clinton has said he will veto the spending cut, setting the stage for the final act in this year's budget battle: negotiations between the White House and Congress that will go into high gear next week.

He offered to compromise with the Republicans. "I'm prepared to work with them," he said during a news conference with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. "I don't want a partisan fight on this. This is crazy for us to be having a big partisan blowout" over the Social Security issue.

Republicans remain wary, having been beaten by Clinton in budget battles before.

"Our numbers are not that far apart," said Rep. Bill Young, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "We are far apart on the political rhetoric."

This was a rare understatement on a day marked by furious speeches and duels fought with numbers on the House floor. The bill passed by a 218-211 vote, with four Democrats joining 214 of 221 Republicans.

"It's Halloween, and the Democrats are up to their old tricks," said Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who argued that the Republicans had "just won the first battle of this war" with Clinton by crafting a budget that "protects every penny of the Social Security surplus."

The Republicans contend that their across-the-board cut in all 13 spending bills, totaling about $5.7 billion, will create a budget that will not tap surplus Social Security revenues to operate government agencies -- which would be the first time that has happened in four decades.

But the CBO said in a new analysis yesterday that this was not true.

It said the Republican-written spending bills exceed lawmakers' self-imposed spending limits by about $17 billion and will drain that much money from surplus Social Security revenues. It cited $17.7 billion in spending outlays that the Republican leadership has instructed the CBO to ignore.

This technique, called a scorekeeping adjustment, allows the Republicans to argue that their across-the-board cut will result in a small surplus in general government revenues and leave the Social Security funds untouched.

The Republicans' spending bills also include $18.6 billion in outlays that the leadership has designated as unanticipated "emergency spending," which technically does not count against the spending limits Congress imposed on itself. These include programs such as the census, which must be conducted every 10 years, and a 25-year-old program to help the poor pay heating bills.

They also rely on about $2.3 billion in outlays taken from the budget for fiscal 2001, and two payments that will be delayed until that year -- $3.3 billion in research grants at the National Institutes of Health and $1.3 billion due Pentagon contractors.

In all, the appearance of a balanced budget relies on at least $43 billion in creative accounting by the Republicans, according to an analysis of the 13 spending bills and the CBO report. It would require an across-the-board cut of 4.8 percent to bring the budget into balance without using Social Security funds, the congressional auditors say.

The Republicans deny that.

"We've now proved that you can fund the government without raiding Social Security," said Majority Leader Dick Armey.

The Democrats are running "a disinformation campaign" by emphasizing the Congressional Budget Office numbers, said Rep. John Edward Porter, a moderate Republican from Illinois.

But House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt said the CBO analysis "repudiates the Republicans' false claims."

The ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, John Spratt of South Carolina, called the Republicans' accounting "too clever by half" and compared their arguments to "a medieval trial."

The House and Senate also passed the month's third continuing resolution, which keeps government agencies running until Nov. 5.

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