White House, Congress Play 'Shutdown' Politics

Spending bills run out Sept. 30. No one wants to be seen as stalling government as fall elections loom.

While the allegations surrounding President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky command center stage in Washington, another major political drama may be unfolding in the shadow of the White House intrigue.

The Clinton administration and congressional Republicans are accusing each other of provoking another government shutdown after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The timing is crucial: Any government closure would come just as Congress is preparing to adjourn so that legislators can return home and campaign for this fall's elections. With Republican memories of the public's anger over the shutdowns of 1995-96 still fresh, GOP leaders are eager to avoid any repeat of that fiasco.

At the center of the finger-pointing are the government's 13 annual spending bills. The White House is threatening to veto several of the measures currently working their way through Congress, citing policy objections or inadequate funding of key programs. House GOP leaders counter that Mr. Clinton is preparing to engineer a shutdown as a ploy to "change the subject" from his legal problems and shift the blame to Republicans during the campaign season.

Clinton seeks funding

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi wrote the president last week to assert their "determination to keep open the vital functions of the federal government at the end of this fiscal year."

Noting the economic and social damage a shutdown could cause, "We therefore urge you to repudiate the 'shutdown strategy' that others may advance in your name," the GOP leaders wrote.

White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles fired back in a letter Monday. "There is no need for a government shutdown, but if there is one it will be because Republicans have either not done their job on time ... or have decided to shortchange critical investments in our nation's future," Mr. Bowles wrote.

House GOP leadership aides say they expect the president to veto the bills funding the Departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, Veterans' Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Justice, and State. Clinton objects that the Labor-HHS bill doesn't fund education and summer-jobs programs that he wants, for instance, and the Commerce measure prohibits the use of public-opinion polling to complete the 2000 census, which the White House favors.

Clinton reportedly wants $9 billion more in domestic spending than was outlined in last year's balanced budget agreement. House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana has told the president that most of the money for those programs was to come from a tobacco bill that will not pass.

"They have deliberately passed a bill that they know is unacceptable," White House deputy spokesman Barry Toiv says of members of Congress. "So they're the ones creating this issue."

Credibility at issue

"The president obviously is trying to convince the American people that we are undercutting the [budget] agreement; and the fact of the matter is, we are not. We are complying with it," says House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas.

Republicans say if the president vetoes the spending bills, they will counter with a "clean" resolution continuing last year's funding levels - one with no contentious riders attached. But Clinton tried to preempt that move in a speech Monday, warning he would veto what he called a "bare-bones budget."

"The last budget of the 20th century should be preparing our nation for the challenges of the next," Clinton said. "I will not accept a budget that does not do this."

Mr. Armey warns the president "doesn't have the kind of credibility" he had during the 1995-96 shutdowns. "I'd advise him that he ought not to count on its working.... It is very clear the Congress of the United States is doing everything within its power to move forward in such a way that there will not be a shutdown. I think the American people understand that."

Both sides are probably blowing smoke, says Stephen Hess, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "It's largely posturing ... the Republicans were so badly burned that they can't go through with their threat, and the president's credibility is too damaged for him to go through with his threat."

"As you get closer to the election, this tends to be standard operating procedure," Mr. Hess says. "It's jockeying for position, which the two parties are expected to do, and should do."

Who wins the battle of wills over spending and policy will probably depend on how each party sees its strength going into the elections.

Should Republicans believe their control of the House depended on it, they might decide to give Clinton some extra spending as the "price of leaving town," as one GOP aide puts it.

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