A money fight that may affect airports and firefighters

When dealing with the budget, a president can't predict everything. Wars or natural disasters can send him, hat in hand, to Congress, asking for emergency funds.

As the past shows, lawmakers can handle these requests with dispatch. But, as if to mark the current political climate in Washington, President Clinton's otherwise innocuous emergency spending legislation is now being badly buffeted by the Hill's most substantial forces: the new politics of a budget surplus, and a once-dignified Senate resorting to partisan warfare.

The outcome could affect everything from the temperature in US homes this summer to public perceptions of the two parties in the fall.

Both parties even largely agree on the requests - though it contains a few controversial requests, like $2.7 billion for US troops in Kosovo, and almost $1 billion to fight drugs in Colombia.

"It's not the content [tying up the requests] as much as it is [Republicans] trying to be tough on holding down spending," says James Horney, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities here. President Clinton's original request was a mere $5.5 billion package. But the House, which quickly passed the bill, more than doubled it to $13 billion.

To prevent lawmakers from padding the bill even more, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi took the unusual step of dividing the request into three parts and attaching them to regular spending bills, instead of allowing a vote on one lump sum.

The leader's priority this year, says Senator Lott's spokesman, John Czwartacki, was to speed up the approval process of regular spending bills, which now routinely drags into the fall. Senators want to get home and campaign, and Lott didn't want them distracted by an emergency spending bill.

But the spending bills themselves fell victim to internecine partisan warfare. Republicans are furious with Democrats for resorting to House-like obstructionist measures to slow legislation. Democrats say they are trying to force real debate on their issues, and feel gagged by Lott.

To spur the Senate on, the White House is pointing out the dire consequences of delay:

*The antinarcotics drive in Colombia - which supplies 80 percent of the cocaine entering the US - has come to a virtual halt due to lack of funds from Washington.

*Low-income and elderly Americans may not get federal aid for utility bills if, as predicted, the country is hit with record heat this summer. In Illinois alone last year, federal dollars cooled 27,000 households. But after helping Americans with soaring oil prices all winter, there's none left for the summer.

*There will be 10,000 fewer safety inspections by the Federal Aviation Administration, and more airport delays due to drastically few spare parts - right as the summer travel season begins.

*The Department of Interior has virtually no money left to fight forest fires.

Still, Mr. Clinton himself is hardly above politics on this issue. Some of these scenarios are not as drastic as he makes them out to be. The FAA, for instance, conducts hundreds of thousands of safety tests every year, of which 10,000 fewer is a small percentage.

And the Interior Department can borrow internally or receive assistance from the National Forest Service. The nation's fires will still be fought, assures Stewart Lundgren, branch chief of fire planning at the Forest Service, although "the easiest way to do it is to get Congress to work on this bill."

Signs of compromise are on the horizon. Mr. Czwartacki indicates Lott is now looking to attach the emergency spending to quicker-moving legislation. Still, there's no interest as of yet in lumping it back together for a single up-or-down vote.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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