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Clinton, Senate Haggle Over Immigration

Legislation: White House appears to be near gaining concessions on provisions affecting legal residents. Sen. Simpson calls pressure 'blackmail.'


WASHINGTON — With a Monday deadline looming, Senate leaders continued to wrangle with the White House on Friday over proposed changes in immigration legislation and a massive budget bill containing more than $600 billion in funds for the next fiscal year.

"I think we're about three hiccups away from an immigration deal, but anything and everything can happen," a White House official said. "There are five legislators and one White House staffer in a room. I think all of them can see the goal line."

Although details remained cloudy, Republican leaders suggested that they might consider making concessions sought by President Clinton in that part of the legislation affecting legal immigrants. The White House wants to remove a provision that would restrict public benefits to legal immigrants to a greater extent than the restrictions in the recently passed welfare reform bill. Clinton also objects to language raising the minimum income that citizens must earn to sponsor immigrant relatives who want to enter the country.

"If the White House wants these [talks] to work out . . . , it can happen," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said as negotiators prepared to work through the weekend.

White House aides complained that after agreeing to remove restrictions on legal immigrants from their immigration bills earlier this year, Republican lawmakers now are trying to resurrect the limits during closed-door caucus meetings. "Legal immigration does not belong in an illegal-immigration bill," one administration official said.


If no agreement is reached by Monday afternoon, Senate leaders will set aside Clinton's concerns and proceed to a vote on the House-passed immigration bill late Monday or Tuesday. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), chief sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, recommended that the Republicans not give an inch.

"The president is attempting to blackmail this Congress," Simpson said. "This is appalling, absolutely appalling."

Meantime, congressional leaders expressed frustration over their inability to finish the huge spending bill needed to fund the government next year. But for all their complaints about the prospect of working through the weekend, they found time to engage in a lengthy round of partisan back-patting about the accomplishments of the 104th Congress.

Republicans, who control both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, threw themselves a session-ending party on the West Steps of the Capitol, complete with marching band, fluttering flags and lofty rhetoric. The celebration promoted the House GOP's "contract with America," the 10-part legislative agenda that met with mixed success in the session.

"You asked for real change in 1994," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who was the key force behind the GOP takeover of Congress after decades of Democratic control. "We kept our word."

Democrats staged a simultaneous, albeit more low-key rally--minus the bunting and patriotic music--on the other side of the Capitol.

"You can stand on the Capitol steps and hire a brass band and blow up a lot of balloons, but you still can't make a full-scale retreat look like a full-dress parade," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).


The real work was taking place far from the public spotlight as White House and congressional negotiators attempted to find common ground on spending priorities to keep the government running after the Oct. 1 fiscal year expires at midnight Monday.

After working until nearly dawn Friday, negotiations resumed later in the morning and were scheduled to continue until after nightfall.

"We're getting there slowly, bit by bit, step by step," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said after the morning session. "I'm confident if we can stay on this process, we can get it done."

At the heart of the talks is the omnibus budget bill containing funds for defense, education, labor, environment, national parks and a host of other essential operations.

Congress took these other actions Friday as it moved toward adjournment:

* Compromise legislation that would give the Federal Aviation Administration greater autonomy and new tasks for improving safety passed the House but was held up in the Senate. With authority for FAA programs running out Monday, the bill to authorize $19 billion in funding over the next two years was stalled when Democrats objected to a technical provision that they said would make it more difficult for Federal Express workers to join unions.

The House passed the bill earlier in the day, 218 to 198. It would fund airport improvements, changing allocation formulas to help smaller airports. It also would require airlines to perform background checks for pilots and baggage handlers. And it includes a provision aimed at child fliers that would bar anyone who does not hold a valid pilot's license from attempting to set a record or engage in an aeronautical competition or feat.

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