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California and the West

Rough Seas Ahead After House OKs Disaster Aid Bill

El Nino: $200 million is earmarked for state. But GOP's insertion of cuts for public housing, bilingual education and Americorps may lead to presidential veto.

April 01, 1998|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House narrowly approved a disaster relief bill Tuesday containing about $200 million for storm-torn California, but Republican lawmakers muddied the waters for the measure by inserting budget cuts likely to provoke a presidential veto.

The catchall $2.9-billion spending measure, approved 212-208, is designed to help several states recover from natural disasters. In California's case, the money would help pay for damage caused by El Nino rains. The bill also would fund continued deployment of U.S. troops in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf.

To cover the spending, GOP leaders pushed through budget reductions that would cut money for public housing, airport grants, bilingual education and President Clinton's Americorps volunteer program--prompting cries of protest from Democratic lawmakers and defections by some moderate Republicans.

In a far less contentious atmosphere, the Senate endorsed a similar aid package last week without making offsetting cuts. The standoff will be hashed out in a House-Senate conference after lawmakers return from a spring recess later this month.

"It's not angry confrontation," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert L. Livingston (R-La.). "It's just a matter of differing philosophies."

But the House action was seen by Democrats as a virtual replay of a tactic that backfired on GOP lawmakers last year. By inserting unrelated measures in the disaster relief package in July--a bill that provided funds to repair flood damage in California--House Republicans hoped to pressure Clinton into accepting items he opposed.

Clinton vetoed the measure anyway and it was the GOP Congress that retreated. The relief money was approved after Republicans were painted as insensitive to disaster victims.

This time, it remains uncertain which version of the legislation will arrive on Clinton's desk. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has opposed the House effort to pay for the emergency spending by making cuts in the budget. In the past, such disaster aid has been simply added to the federal deficit.

"There's no predicting how it's going to turn out," said Livingston, who vowed to push for the cuts in the conference committee.

Most of the reductions would come from public housing funds, which during Tuesday's floor debate caused Democrats to charge that the Republican plan would throw poor people into the streets.

"The Republican leadership has refused to act responsibly," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (R-Mo.). "I'm for disaster relief and getting money for our troops in Iraq and Bosnia but not in this form."

Republicans accused their colleagues of gross exaggeration and said insisting that new spending be paid for with cuts from elsewhere in the budget puts them on solid political ground.

Watching warily from the sidelines, the White House accused GOP leaders of unnecessarily playing politics with critical legislation.

"It would be disappointing and disturbing if our ability to provide assistance to victims of natural disasters and continued funding for our troops in Bosnia and Iraq and the readiness of our military forces worldwide were held hostage to partisan politics in the House of Representatives," an administration statement said.

Caught in the standoff is money aimed at rebuilding and repairing highways, levees, farms, parks and military facilities in California damaged by recent storms.

"I don't think it will come to a veto," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who helped push the specific aid for California but also proposed the cut in public housing funds. "It would be political dynamite for the president."

Most of the 22 GOP members of the state's House delegation seemed to agree, with only three of them voting against the measure (two others did not cast ballots).

The dissenting Republicans were Reps. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, Tom Campbell of San Jose and William M. Thomas of Bakersfield. They oppose the open-ended deployment of U.S. troops in Bosnia.

"I'm very saddened that the Republican leadership put Bosnia funding together with El Nino aid," Campbell said. "I have many El Nino disaster victims in my district. I hope they understand my vote."

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