Partisan Snits Threaten Four Key Spending Bills

Republicans and Democrats snarl at each other across committee rooms. Senate Democrats threaten filibusters, while their House counterparts get bogged down in procedural votes. Republicans grouse that Democrats still don't understand that they are the minority party and that the GOP sets the agenda.

Welcome to Congress as the budgetary battles enters its final stage. The we-can-work-together attitude that resonated so recently through the Capitol's marble hallways is giving way to partisan sniping.

The change is driven in part by a backlash against last summer's bipartisan budget deal. Partisans are worried that GOP leaders and President Clinton have each given up too much to the other side. Conservatives and liberals each argue their parties must draw sharp lines that differentiate them from each other as next year's elections approach.

Congress has already sent seven of the 13 spending bills to the president. But differences over some of the others could lead to a string of vetoes. GOP leaders want to finish by Nov. 7, and some remain optimistic, despite the climate of conflict.

"Any one of these issues could result in a delay ..., but I think, given that everybody is really willing to sit down and work hard on these issues ... we could probably be done by the 7th or 8th," says House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas.

Four of the outstanding spending bills are hung up over strongly partisan issues:

* Abortion. The foreign-operations bill faces stalemate over a House ban on funding for international family-planning groups that perform or promote abortions in other countries. Mr. Clinton last week vetoed another bill that would ban certain late-term, or "partial-birth," abortions.

* Education. The House version of the bill to fund the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Departments bars any spending on Clinton's proposed national-education testing. And the District of Columbia's spending measure is stuck on House proposals to give 2,000 D.C. schoolchildren vouchers to attend any private or public school they chose.

* The census. The House bill to fund the Commerce, Justice, and State Departments forbids the Census Bureau from public opinion "sampling" to complete the 2000 census. Clinton has already faced down Republicans once on the issue.

The House and Senate are also at odds over renewal of the ISTEA highway-funding bill. The House passed a six-month extension of the current law; the Senate enacted a new six-year measure.

Meanwhile, Democrats in both houses pledge to continue obstructing business other than the spending bills if their demands are not met. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota says he'll attach a campaign-finance amendment to any nonfunding measure that majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi brings up.

And Senator Lott responds that Democrats will pay a price for any slowdown. "They're not going to get any bills, they're not going to get any judges, they're not going to get any appointments," he told Congress Daily.

IN the House, minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri threatens obstruction if Republicans don't end the investigation of Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez's 984-vote victory over Republican Rep. Robert Dornan in California, a win Mr. Dornan charges was fraudulent.

"This [inquiry] is ridiculous, and we are not going to let it stand, and we will disrupt beyond anything you have seen ... if when we come back from the Columbus Day district work period we do not see a schedule that gets us to closure on this case," Representative Gephardt says.

House Democrats also gripe that the GOP won't schedule any of their routine bills - generally measures that name courthouses and federal buildings after retired politicians - and they demand a campaign-finance-reform vote.

Caught in the crosscurrents is Clinton's fast-track trade-deal proposal. He is turning up the heat on House Democrats, whose votes are crucial. And Clinton took a softer approach in last week's line-item vetoes: His line-item vetoes of several military-construction projects the previous week angered many in Congress at a time when he needs all the allies he can get.

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