Push to Cut Budget, A to Z, Gains

More than half the House supports plan to let every congressman propose budget spending cuts

TIRED of higher taxes, red-ink spending, trillion-dollar budgets, and bloated bureaucracies? Two members of Congress think they have an answer. It's called ``A to Z.''

Their A to Z Spending Cuts Plan would give every member of Congress, right down to the lowliest freshman, a chance to propose item-by-item spending cuts. Congress would vote on the cuts in a special, 56-hour session.

The plan is highly controversial. House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington derides A to Z as ``an extraordinarily bad proposal.'' Yet it is drawing support from a bipartisan cross-section of the House of Representatives.

A to Z would bypass the usual hierarchial rules that allow committee chairmen to guard their pet federal projects.

The results could be entirely unpredictable.

With A to Z, any member could target federal projects - superhighways in West Virginia, fancy courthouses in Arizona, exotic defense projects in California, or whatever looked wasteful.

A to Z would also put members on the spot. They would go on record - aye or nay - on dozens of specific proposals to trim the size of government. It would point the finger directly at big spenders.

The two original sponsors, Rep. Robert Andrews (D) of New Jersey and Rep. Bill Zeliff (R) of New Hampshire, say their A to Z plan would attack runaway federal spending by returning significant budget powers to individual members.

Speaker Foley's concerns about A to Z are shared by a number of critics, however.

Foley told reporters: ``What we are looking at here is a proposal that I think is an extremely bad one from the standpoint of shutting out opportunity for careful consideration'' of legislation.

For example, it is possible under A to Z that some cuts would be voted on without any debate. There is no provision to estimate possible savings. And there is no assurance that members would have time to read proposals before they are voted on, the Speaker says.

Yet as the federal debt rises relentlessly toward $5 trillion, Congressmen Zeliff and Andrews refuse to give up. First, they recruited 227 members of the House of Representatives, more than half, as cosponsors.

Now they have persuaded 178 members to sign a discharge petition, which would permit them to bypass Foley and the rest of the leadership and force the full House to consider their idea. To achieve that, they need 40 more signatures.

Time could be their worst enemy. With the clock rapidly running out on the 103rd Congress, supporters of A to Z say they must get their discharge petition by July 4, and pass the budget cuts by the August recess. Otherwise, the Senate would not have time to act.

At this writing, representatives of Zeliff and Andrews were meeting with aides of other congressmen who support the concept of A to Z, but who share some of Foley's concerns about the fine details.

ONE of those who supports the concept of A to Z, but who has refused to sign the discharge petition, is Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas.

Together with 32 other members, he has proposed his own alternative, called ``A-Plus to Z.''

While backing A to Z, Mr. Stenholm worries that many members would not be granted debate time for their amendments because of the way Zeliff and Andrews drafted their proposal. The original bill put a 56-hour cap on debate.

Stenholm also wants a provision that requires amendments (spending cuts) to be submitted at least five days prior to the vote. That would leave time for public comment, as well as give the Congressional Budget Office an opportunity to develop a realistic estimate of savings.

In addition, Stenholm wants to ensure that the entire budget is debated, from medicare to foreign aid. He worries that without this provision, broad areas of the budget might be overlooked.

The push for A to Z, and the widespread support it has drawn, reflects growing frustration on Capitol Hill over budget procedures.

This Congress, totally dominated by Democrats, has tightly controlled procedures for floor debates. Many bills are brought to the House floor with rules that prohibit any amendments, or which allow only one or two marginal changes. House members are basically told about major bills: Take it or leave it, but don't change it.

Democratic leaders argue that bypassing the usual committee and rules procedures would open the House to making quick, unsound decisions.

While A to Z has drawn support from both parties, the Republicans have rallied around it with near unanimity. All but two of the 178 Republicans have cosponsored A to Z. And all but 13 have signed the discharge petition.

On the Democratic side, 51 signed up as sponsors, but only 13 have signed the discharge petition so far. Yet that could change quickly - especially if Stenholm's forces can find a compromise that allows them to join Andrews and Zeliff.

Strategists say that if all goes well, the number of signers on the discharge petition could soon climb to more than 200, just shy of the 218 needed to override the leadership.

Andrews and Zeliff plan to cut off the opportunity to sign at exactly 218, so members who want to look like budget cutters to the folks at home will be under pressure to get on the A to Z bandwagon.

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