Lawmakers Seek Last Skirmishes Of Budget Battle
Advocates for deeper spending cuts gear up during congressional recess to reopen issue. OLD BUSINESS
WASHINGTON — YES, the capital is warming up for a new season of new issues - such as free trade, health care, and restructuring the federal bureaucracy - while members of Congress take the measure of public sentiment in their home districts.
Yes, the president has actually slept in, restoring himself on Martha's Vineyard to start fresh.
But the Clinton budget playoffs are not over yet. The conservative Democrats who swung their votes for the Clinton plan in the final, clutch moments early this month, have one last overtime in which they seek a clean shot at deeper spending cuts.
Whether Congress produces significant further cuts or not depends partly on what its members are hearing from their constituents while they hold town meetings and public hearings during the August recess.
"In order to get deeper cuts, we'll need some outside pressure, because there will be plenty of resistance inside the institution," says Rep. Tim Penny, the Minnesota Democrat who is leading the drive for further cuts.
An early reading from a few members suggests that even in districts of conservative Democrats, where the Clinton budget is unpopular, voters are shifting attention to other concerns.
"Most people do not particularly like this budget," says Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas, chairman of the Conservative Democratic Forum. They heard too much about taxes and not enough about spending cuts, he says.
But, he adds, "People are ready to move on."
Mr. Penny is concerned that voters will not stay angry enough about the budget deal to force action when further cuts come up for votes in the House, probably in October. Increasing numbers of people will realize that the tax hikes they have heard so much about will have little effect on their own finances, he speculates.
But win or lose, Penny and his colleagues seek a handful of direct votes on spending cuts, including cuts in entitlement programs - automatic federal payments to eligible individuals, such as Medicare and Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
They won a written commitment from House leaders before the final budget vote in early August that the president would initiate a spending-cut bill this fall. "I don't expect it will cut too much," Penny says. But he seeks votes on three or four amendments to the bill for deeper cuts. Plan to pave way for bill
Penny will meet with Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, and White House budget director Leon Panetta in early September to negotiate a framework for the votes "so it doesn't look like a charade." He would like the bill brought to the floor during a week when there is little major business, and he hopes to curtail parliamentary maneuvers that would allow members to avoid direct, accountable votes on spending cuts.
Many Republicans hope for even more than just three or four amendments to the Clinton bill, but suspect that the Democratic leadership will tightly control the rules surrounding what comes to the floor for a vote.
House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington acknowledged as much after the House budget vote early this month, saying he would give members a "few opportunities, not many," to look at additional spending cuts.
Some challenges may also arise to the retroactive aspect of the tax changes in the Clinton budget. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California says she supports repealing retroactivity and using an across-the-board cut in discretionary federal spending to make up for the lost revenue.
If retroactivity is not repealed legislatively, some conservative groups outside government are studying ways to challenge retroactive taxation in court. Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) of Georgia plans to introduce a constitutional amendment banning retroactive tax increases.
The deal that Penny negotiated also includes commitments to hold votes on tightening spending caps on entitlements, putting into effect Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s upcoming recommendations for streamlining government, and other controls on spending.
Since entitlements and taxes are covered under the just-passed budget reconciliation bill, further attempts to trim entitlements raise the possibility of reopening or even unraveling that deal, which passed by one vote in each chamber. Deal may be spared
But most players will wish to avoid any risk of that and hold the range of options to making deeper cuts. Norman Ornstein, veteran Congress-watcher at the American Enterprise Institute, says that cuts can be considered without threatening the whole budget reconciliation deal because efforts to trade and substitute cuts for other changes in the budget deal will fail. But, he adds, "My guess is that when it really gets down to specific cuts, some of the people who have been the loudest about not supporting
the [Clinton] budget will vote against the cuts."