GOP Charge up Capitol Hill Pivots on Two Budget Votes

SINCE the Republicans took control of Congress in January, it's been a year of hyperbole and history-making, of grand plans for government-slashing and budget-balancing.

But this is the week, if the schedule holds, that the biggest chunk of the federal budget goes to the full Senate (on Wednesday) and the House (on Thursday) for an up-or-down vote. The bill is called "reconciliation legislation" - an oxymoron of Washington Monument proportions, considering the seemingly irreconcilable differences that must be smoothed over - and it accounts for 70 percent of federal government spending.

In a typical year, tackling even one of the many reforms contemplated in this bill would be a huge undertaking. But this is the year of the Republican revolution, the GOP's first shot in 40 years at running Congress. Modesty is a foreign concept. Consider the bill's key components:

*Reforms to Medicare, the health-care program for older citizens, that slow its growth by $270 billion over the next seven years.

*An overhaul of Medicaid, the health-care plan for the poor, that takes away the federal guarantee of care for those who qualify and saves $184 billion.

*An end to federal "welfare as we know it," with money sent to the states in lump sums for them to spend as they see fit.

*A $10 billion cut in the student-loan program.

*A $42 billion reduction in the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which provides tax relief to the working poor.

*Reform of federal farm subsidies.

Add to the mix a $245 billion tax cut over seven years (and recall that the Senate's original budget resolution did not include any tax cut at all).

The bottom line is that this package, if passed, is to send the government on its way to a balanced budget in 2002.

"This is the biggest bill in the history of the Republican Party," says an aide to a senior House Republican. "It heads us toward a balanced budget, it's got tax relief, and for the first time in 50 years, it actually shrinks the size of [the federal] government."

The reconciliation bill will pass, he says, because it has to pass. The Republican leaders in each house will keep making concessions to unhappy colleagues until they know they've got enough votes to clear a majority.

Now, about the details

As the week opens, groups of Republicans are still registering their complaints about various elements. Some want concessions on farm subsidies, others want changes on Medicaid, others on parts that affect oil and gas exploration.

The way it works in the House, says the senior aide, is that members or their staff meet with a top member or his staff and point out what they'd like changed or removed.

"If they say, 'I've got to have this or I'll vote no,' chances are they'll get what they want," says the aide. "But usually, it's less absolute."

Often, the requests are made of Rep. Tom Delay (R) of Texas, the No. 3 Republican in the House and the main vote-counter, who then takes the list to leadership meetings. Even though the elements of reconciliation have already been voted on and hashed over at the committee level, and some in the full chamber, just about everything remains up for grabs.

"It's called 'growing votes,'" says Martha Phillips of the Concord Coalition, a Washington-based anti-deficit lobbying group.

Rep. Connie Morella, a moderate Republican from Maryland often at odds with the GOP leadership, worked hard with other Republicans from suburban Washington to win changes in a plan to trim retirement benefits for federal employees.

Does this mean she'll now vote for the package?

"Not necessarily!" says Ms. Morella, who has also been fighting to save funding for federal programs based in her district and for programs important to women. "I'm just trying to avert the most deleterious effects of the bill."

Even though this looks to be the biggest week so far of the 104th Congress, they'll only get bigger as the weeks progress. After both houses pass their reconciliation bills, they must iron out differences in a conference committee. Then each must approve the conference report. Then it goes to President Clinton, who has threatened a veto based on what he considers Draconian cuts to Medicare.

Refilling the veto pen

Assuming Mr. Clinton does veto the bill, and that both Houses - whose Republican majorities are small - will not have the two-thirds majorities to override the veto, then the hard bargaining begins. Analysts are looking at mid- to late November before the serious negotiations begin between the White House and Congress.

"It's going to be touch-and-go whether we get a package out this year," says Ms. Phillips. "There will be a compromise, but it will be messy getting there."

Stan Collender, chief budget analyst at Price Waterhouse, isn't so sure the whole process won't fall apart. He suggests the Republicans may, in the end, decide they'd rather have a collapsed budget deal than a deal that gives too much to Clinton and the Democrats. "What they'd get," he says, "is an issue to recapture the White House [in 1996]."

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