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THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / JAMES BORNEMEIER

Aid Plan Touches Off Budgetary Debate

January 28, 1994|JAMES BORNEMEIER

WASHINGTON — When swollen rivers were ravaging the Midwest last summer, most House Republicans joined with 45 conservative Democrats to block--momentarily--a $3-billion flood relief bill.

The Republicans wanted to make the point that laying out billions of dollars in federal assistance without offsetting budget cuts was bad, deficit-enhancing government.

Remarkably, Rep. Jim Nussle, a two-term Republican deficit hawk from rain-soaked Iowa, was one of the leaders of that uprising.

In a show of party unity, California's House Republicans voted in a bloc to support the Nussle movement, sending a signal that fiscal discipline can be applied in the most dire emergency situations.

(The House leadership, embarrassed by the unusual procedural defeat, regrouped and the aid package was approved on an overwhelming vote.)

*

That was then. This is now, and Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, whose district encompasses the Northridge quake's epicenter, has a different point of view.

"I'm going to vote for the aid with offsets, or without offsets," said McKeon, ordinarily an ardent foe of virtually all congressional spending measures. "Some members will try to raise the offset issue. . . . I hope that will not delay (the vote). Getting the money is the top priority."

But Nussle is still at it.

On Tuesday, the day that the emergency aid package was introduced by three dozen California members, Nussle wrote to Rep. William H. Natcher, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee: "There is no question that the Appropriations Committee must act quickly in drafting legislation providing assistance to the earthquake victims in California. While this legislation should be considered expeditiously, we do not believe sound budgetary principles need to be compromised to accomplish this task."

This sort of talk is as welcome as a swarm of aftershocks to California legislators, particularly to Republicans who have to juggle their positions.

But as Redlands Republican Jerry Lewis so refreshingly confessed earlier this week: "Consistency is not required in this process. Those who would suggest that perhaps we should balance the budget on the backs of the people who face this crisis in Los Angeles are missing a definition of emergency."

*

Although no one sees the $6.6-billion aid package in any danger, the Californians are taking no chances. Congressional sources say that the aid bill will be wired as tightly as House procedures allow. The House leadership wants the bill on President Clinton's desk by Feb. 12 and will probably get it there on time.

Among Californians, there may be some defections. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) has already threatened to vote against the package if his amendment to bar federal aid going to illegal immigrants (he dubs it the government's "no-ask, no-tell" policy) is disallowed.

Even some conservative Democrats, like Cal Dooley of Visalia, intend to vote against a plan that prohibits discussion of the offset issue.

Closer to home, Democrats also wish Gov. Pete Wilson would act a just little more gracious about the swift Clinton Administration response. His reluctance to be specific about state relief efforts, until he sizes up damage estimates and incoming federal money, sends the wrong signal to Washington, they say.

"It is clear to me that the size of this disaster is so enormous that the state is going to have to do everything within its powers to meet emergency needs and structural building needs," says Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "To say 'we will hold back, we won't do anything and we will wait until the feds come through' is something I hope I do not hear because that would not be positive."

Translation: California wins no popularity contests on Capitol Hill; please appear pleased and cooperative.

*

Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives such as Nussle and Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) are left to ponder a long-term solution to disaster aid.

Nussle tends toward the simple but politically difficult pay-as-you-go route. Others favor some kind of disaster fund.

The disaster fund idea worries Packard. "We don't have the ability as an institution to keep our hands out of any pot of money that's out there. Unless we built such a fund so that we had no legal access to it under any circumstances, I'd have a problem with it."

So California will get its aid, and the debate will fire up again when the next calamity strikes.

"This particular disaster ought not to bear the brunt of a new policy," Packard says. "I like the concept, but let's get through this one."

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