After Much Bickering, Democrats Settle on Budget Plan

PERHAPS it was a moment of candor - or frustration. But there was Rep. Charles Stenholm trying to rally his fellow Democrats to approve a budget resolution that many of them did not like. ``If you look at it, it's not that bad,'' said the Texas lawmaker on the House floor.

As it turned out, enough Democrats agreed with Representative Stenholm May 1 to allow the House to pass a budget resolution that President Bush and his fellow Republicans oppose.

``The House is buying its admission ticket to the budget summit. The vote guarantees a front-row seat with the president,'' explains Robert Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

This is a view echoed by the Democratic leadership, which had to scramble to round up the votes to pass its version of the FY 1991 budget that begins Oct. 1. ``It is the beginning of a process to reach a budget conclusion and implement it,'' said Speaker of the House Thomas Foley, who made a rare floor appeal to nudge reluctant members.

Although the Senate had yet to clear its own version of the budget by mid-week, it is likely to do so eventually. ``If they don't pass a budget, the president can put the Congress on the defensive. He can say they didn't fulfill their part of the process,'' Mr. Reischauer says.

Democratic leaders, however, remains at odds with some of their own members over the size of any defense cuts. ``They are torn between moving forward on the one hand and realizing that what you pass you might have to implement and live with,'' Reischauer says.

The Republicans, in the meantime, are showing equal signs of confusion. House Republicans had originally intended to serve up President Bush's budget as an alternative to the Democratic menu.

But late on April 30 Rep. Bill Frenzel of Minnesota changed his mind, disappointing many Democrats, who were looking forward to an old-fashioned fist fight. ``Am I a sissy?'' asked Mr. Frenzel. ``Maybe,'' he answered, then explained that ``economic conditions have outrun us by a small factor of $20 billion - we don't need $36 billion, but something in the mid-50s so let's not delude ourselves.''

In fact, as Frenzel was quick to point out, the Democrats have agreed to accept Mr. Bush's overly optimistic economic assumptions in their budget. ``We must stop eating cream puffs and bite bullets,'' Frenzel said.

THE Democrats are aiming at the bullets. Rep. Leon Panetta of California said that his budget, which chops $250 billion out of defense over four fiscal years, recognizes the transition from a cold-war to a peacetime economy.

The Republicans cite the changes in Eastern Europe as another reason that they do not want to present Bush's bill before Congress. This week Defense Secretary Richard Cheney told Republicans he was going to adjust his budget numbers to reflect the changes in Eastern Europe. ``He thought he would consider these changes and make further cuts,'' says a spokeswoman for Rep. Robert Michel, the minority leader. On May 1, Mr. Cheney continued a freeze on military construction projects and ordered a review of more than 200 projects already approved by Congress.

Among the projects under review are four of the six naval home ports; a $110 million rocket test facility at Arnold, Tenn.; some $60 million in improvements at Fort Hood, Texas; and $37 million for a maintenance facility at Tooele, Utah.

During the budget debate, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia reminded the Democrats that they could not return to their districts and claim they did not know about such cuts. ``We're reminding you now,'' he said.

Another problem that Congress and the administration must solve at any budget summit is the skyrocketing cost of the savings-and-loan bailout. The bailout is now expected to cost at least another $15 billion to $20 billion more in the coming fiscal year. This week, the Senate voted down a proposal to remove the bailout from the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction target, which is $64 billion this coming year. According to the CBO, the current deficit is closer to $180 billion.

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