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Balanced-Budget Agreement Clears Senate With Big Bipartisan Majority

Congress: Rocky road to approval in each house suggests the next stage-- enacting the bills needed to turn the plan into law-- will be extremely difficult.

May 24, 1997|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate, in a resounding bipartisan vote, Friday approved the outlines of a watershed budget-balancing agreement between President Clinton and GOP leaders.

The vote on the budget was 78-22, with 34 Democrats joining 44 Republicans to support the plan. Eight Democrats and 14 Republicans voted against it. Both California senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted for the budget.

"It was truly a bipartisan effort," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "We should be proud of it, and it's an example of what we should do more of in the future."

The budget resolution sets spending and revenue targets aimed at eliminating the deficit by 2002, which would be the first time since 1969 that the budget was balanced. It calls for a tax cut of $85 billion and $115 billion in Medicare savings over five years.

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The House passed a nearly identical measure Wednesday. Minor differences between the two versions will not be resolved until after Congress returns from a 10-day recess that began Friday, but the basics of the fiscal blueprint are set in concrete.

However, the budget's rocky road to House and Senate approval suggests that the next stage--enacting the tax and spending bills needed to turn the plan into law--will be extremely difficult.

Republican committee chairmen are bridling at their leaders' efforts to dictate the terms of legislation to them. Democrats, most of whom were lukewarm or downright hostile to the deal, may be less willing to support the particulars than the broad agreement. And outside interest groups are already mobilizing to block deficit-reduction measures that come out of their hides.

In general, GOP leaders have been having an increasingly hard time keeping their rank and file in line. In the latest sign of their diminished clout, the House on Thursday rebelled against a leadership decision to adjourn for the Memorial Day recess without passing a politically popular disaster aid bill. In protest, the House defeated a motion to adjourn for a week, forcing GOP leaders to resort to obscure parliamentary maneuvers to keep the House in recess for a week.

The turmoil over disaster aid contributed to the delay in GOP efforts to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of the budget resolution. But Lott said those differences will be easily resolved and will clear the House and Senate right after Congress returns from recess.

The budget resolution enshrines the broad outlines of the agreement announced by Clinton and GOP leaders in early May. In setting the government on a five-year course to eliminating the deficit, the plan essentially ends a long-standing fiscal debate between the parties and ratifies Democrats' gradual conversion to the traditional GOP belief in the wisdom of balancing the budget.

Democratic supporters of the plan hailed its bipartisan backing as an emblem of their party's fiscal responsibility. But they also bragged that Democrats' influence ensured the budget was balanced in a way that did not cut social programs as deeply as Republicans had wanted when they took control of Congress in 1995.

"This is a balanced budget with a heart," said Boxer. "This is an end of the radical revolution [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich talked about."

Senators voting against the budget were mostly liberal Democrats, who thought it provided too little for social programs, and conservative Republicans, who thought it cut spending and taxes too little. Skeptics from both parties questioned whether the plan would really balance the budget because it allows the deficit to rise before dropping to zero in 2002.

The budget resolution does not include legislative details of the budget agreement, which were laid out in a 24 page-document drafted by the handful of administration and congressional officials who cut the deal.

Now the job of writing those details into law falls to House and Senate committees; a key question is how precisely they will follow the agreement. Many proud, turf-conscious committee chairmen have been fuming about being cut out of the talks that produced the deal, and they now want to make their mark.

"What are we, potted plants?" demanded House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), as he tried unsuccessfully to add money to the budget for transportation programs. "Can't we, as members of Congress, make a modest adjustment?"

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After the agreement was released spelling out specific programs favored by Clinton that are supposed to be protected from cuts, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) suggested he would not be bound by those promises. "It's my job to set specific spending levels for programs," he announced.

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