Behind the Budget Showdown

Powerful Rules Committee limits Republicans' chance to offer alternative fiscal plans

THE lights burned until 4 a.m. yesterday in the Rules Committee as the House of Representatives braced for its most important vote of the year.

In a crowded, ornate chamber on the third floor of the United States Capitol, the all-important rules body set the stage for the legislative showdown on President Clinton's $1.5 trillion budget.

The prestigious committee - 12 men, 1 woman - is an unheralded focal point of power in the nation's capital. The tightly run group, controlled by an overwhelming 9-to-4 Democratic majority, is like a steering wheel for the party leadership.

As the House prepared to vote, Rules members gathered in their cramped hearing room, so small that there is space for only six news reporters squeezed into the back; other news people must cool their heels outside, waiting for an empty chair. Reporters who finally get inside are told firmly: "no tape recorders."

THE Rules Committee is where the Democratic leadership usually says "no" to scores of members who want their proposals debated on the House floor. It is where hundreds of interesting, innovative ideas - both Democratic and Republican - often crash hopelessly against the steely procedures of the House. And so it was Thursday.

Fifty-five members, from Ohio and Texas, from Georgia and California, from Arizona and Connecticut, begged permission to amend the Clinton budget.

In the end, the committee said "no" to all but one - Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio. Representative Kasich, a leader in the House fight against higher taxes, was given one hour yesterday to put his comprehensive proposal before House members.

Among those rejected was House minority leader Bob Michel (R) of Illinois and Rep. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine. They had put forward one of the most explosive, and popular, ideas one that might have carried a majority if it ever got to the House floor.

They would have killed Mr. Clinton's $71.5 billion energy, or Btu, tax, and replaced it with spending cuts.

Also turned aside was Rep. Bill Archer (R) of Texas. He was trying to head off higher taxes on social security recipients.

Rules' strict control of the process has angered many members, including some freshmen. They had hoped to attack the government's $300 billion budget deficit with a vengeance. Instead, their ideas cannot even come up for a vote on the House floor.

Rep. Porter Goss of Florida, one of the few Republicans on the Rules Committee, says he has been "shocked" by the Democratic leadership's overwhelming rejection of almost every amendment this year.

The committee's legendary authority has seldom been so rigorously applied as in 1993. So-called "restrictive rules," which prohibit any amendments on the floor, are commonplace.

In previous decades - for instance, in the 95th Congress (1977-78) - rules that restricted amendments were applied to only 15 percent of the bills on the House floor. In the current Congress, almost every bill gets a restricted rule that doesn't allow changes.

When the Democratic majority permits an amendment, as they did with Kasich, it's often because they feel sure it won't win. The Kasich proposal, a thick document assembled by a team of Republican congressmen, detailed $355 billion in spending cuts, and zero new taxes.

Kasich's spending cuts were so severe, however, that Democratic leaders were certain it couldn't win.

Minority leader Michel's proposal might have done much better. He warned the committee that Clinton's Btu tax would impose a $500 burden on the average family, with an even greater impact on people in cold-weather states. Representative Snowe called the energy tax "a job loss proposal, not a job creator" as Mr. Clinton promised during this campaign.

Representative Archer agreed, cautioning the committee that the Clinton energy tax could cost the US 600,000 to 1 million lost jobs by 1998. He warned that industry after industry - oil refineries, cement, aluminum, glass, paper, steel - will move out of the country to areas where their basic fuels and feedstocks won't be taxed.

Archer also complained about the forthcoming tax on Social Security benefits for many middle-class people who have other incomes from investments. The Clinton tax penalizes "only those who saved during their lifetimes," he said.

The meeting plodded on relentlessly. No break for lunch. No break for dinner. Many congressmen waited for hours to make their pleas.

Their efforts were mostly in vain.

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