WASHINGTON — Sweeping aside doubts that the landmark federal budget deal would ever get off the ground, the House Budget Committee on Friday overwhelmingly approved a resolution that would lock into place a five-year blueprint for eliminating the deficit by 2002, provide the first major tax cut since 1981 and spare thousands of legal immigrants from looming welfare benefit cuts.
The committee approved the measure, 31 to 7, with 11 Democrats joining 20 Republicans in supporting it. The bipartisan action bodes well for quick congressional approval and stands in vivid contrast to the bitter partisan splits that have riven budgetary debates in Congress during the past two years.
"This is not only the first balanced budget in a generation, it is an American balanced budget that protects our values for future generations," President Clinton said. "Take this balanced budget and write it into law," he urged Congress.
"Cooperation between Congress and the president is resulting in smaller government," said House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio).
The Senate Budget Committee is expected to approve a companion measure Monday, and GOP leaders hope to bring the measure to the House and Senate floors for final action next week.
Enshrining the agreement announced two weeks ago by Clinton and Republican leaders, the measure would require Congress to reduce projected spending by more than $300 billion over the next five years, including $115 billion from Medicare and $14 billion from Medicaid. But it also would make room for a net tax cut of $85 billion and for key Clinton spending initiatives dealing with health, welfare, education and the environment.
The committee action is the first step in a long legislative process in which Clinton will exercise far less control over crafting details of the budget than he has in shaping the outline of the plan.
"The burden of delivering the product now shifts to Congress and it's in the Republicans' hands," said Robert D. Reischauer, a budget expert at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Some lawmakers and budget analysts worry that, despite the plan, worse-than-projected economic conditions or a lack of resolve by future Congresses could feed continued budget deficits.
"There's been a lot of noise about what an historic agreement this is," said Susan Tanaka, vice president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. But, she said, "there have been previous agreements to balance the budget and we haven't gotten there."
Skeptics argued that the budget lacks adequate deficit-reduction enforcement tools. The fact that the deficit is projected to go up in the first year of the plan and does not drop below this year's level until 2001 also raises concerns.
Under its resolution, the Budget Committee projects that the deficit would rise from $67 billion this year to $90 billion in 1998 and 1999, then drop to $83 billion in 2000 and $53 billion in 2001 before producing a $1-billion surplus in 2002.
But Senate Budget Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said that he is confident that the deal will stick because budget writers included strict spending caps and used conservative economic assumptions to ensure that it is not thrown off track.
The measure is Congress' first formal step toward carrying out the budget agreement announced with great fanfare by Clinton and GOP leaders on May 2.
But for two weeks, legislative action was stalled by bickering over the details. To settle the matter, GOP and administration officials Thursday night produced a 24-page document and two letters spelling out the pact. The committee resolution passed Friday sets broad revenue targets and spending limits and is a blueprint for tax and spending bills Congress will pass later this year.
Those documents are not binding on the congressional panels that will draft implementing legislation. Indeed, some committee chairmen are already bridling at what they see as an effort to tie their hands. But GOP leaders and Clinton said they will mount a "coordinated effort" to make the details stick.
Some of those details, if approved, have special significance for California. For example, the agreement calls for spending $700 million over five years for federal land acquisitions and exchanges. Deputy Interior Secretary John Garamendi said Friday that $315 million of the money would be used to expedite two deals already in progress: to preserve 7,500 acres of ancient redwood trees in Northern California's Headwaters Forest and to prevent a huge gold mine from going into operation in Montana next door to Yellowstone National Park.
In another area, the administration won some modest concessions from the GOP on maintaining benefits to many of the 500,000 legal immigrants facing the loss of Supplemental Security Income this summer as a result of last year's welfare law.