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House OKs Budget, Tax Measures in Test of Wills

Congress: The Republican challenge to Clinton's veto threats boosts Washington gridlock as a stump issue for both parties.


WASHINGTON — Republicans rammed critical tax and budget legislation through the House on largely party-line votes Thursday, setting up a preelection collision with President Clinton, who vowed to veto the measures.

With Congress on the verge of adjournment, the brinkmanship left up in the air a broad range of issues that could factor into the presidential and congressional campaigns before the Nov. 7 elections.

Among them are proposals to raise the minimum wage, help build new schools, offer tax breaks for retirement savings and ease immigration laws.

The high-stakes confrontation unfolded just a day after it appeared that Clinton and Republican congressional leaders were nearing closure on minimum-wage and tax-cut negotiations and preparing to tackle the final annual spending bills needed to run the government.

Instead, the tone of partisan warfare was set when House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri showed up for a Democratic caucus wearing red and blue face paint and a breastplate and brandishing a spear, in theatrics meant to evoke the Scottish hero in the film "Braveheart."

Despite two fresh veto promises, Republicans insisted that they were passing compromise legislation that the president should accept.

"Sign the bill," House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) urged Clinton during one round of debate. "It will make you mostly happy. That's as much as you can expect in this life."

Armey spoke before the House voted, 237 to 174, to approve a bill containing $240 billion in tax cuts and breaks over 10 years, including an expansion of the limit on annual contributions to tax-deferred individual retirement accounts, from $2,000 to $5,000. The measure also would raise the federal minimum wage to $6.15 an hour, up from $5.15, in two years--60 cents less than what California's minimum wage will be by that time. And it would provide $28 billion over five years for hospitals, health maintenance organizations and other health care providers--a politically potent group of beneficiaries--seeking increased Medicare funding.

Republicans made clear that Democrats should expect nothing better after a year in which Clinton has vetoed two major bills to cut taxes for married couples and repeal the federal estate tax.

But Democrats, closing ranks to show that Republicans would not have the two-thirds margin needed to override a veto, said the GOP leadership had jettisoned bipartisanship by scattering "poison pills" throughout the tax legislation and a $37.5-billion budget bill for the Commerce, State and Justice departments. That bill also passed the House Thursday on a 206-198 vote.

What galled Democrats most was a Republican decision to finish writing key legislation without their input. Every day that goes by without passing major bills, Democrats charged, is another day wasted in Washington away from the campaign trail. Congress is now three weeks past its targeted adjournment date and is nearly a month into a new fiscal year without a new budget.

Much of the government is now operating on 24-hour stopgap funding measures. Meanwhile, Congress is expected to exceed a previously adopted budget for discretionary spending by at least $37 billion.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, suggested that the GOP actually wants to see the legislation vetoed.

"How do you think you're going to get out of here unless you talk to somebody?" he asked Republicans. "It is wrong not to consult with the president, and it is wrong not to consult with your colleagues. If you need a veto . . , well, my brothers and sisters, you got it."

The Senate's Republican leadership took up the tax bill late Thursday. The Senate could vote on it and the budget bill as early as today. But Clinton, in two strongly worded letters, made plain that the actions would die at his desk.

Clinton said he would veto the tax bill because it fails to include new tax breaks he wants to finance school construction, gives HMOs a disproportionate share of Medicare money and does not do enough to reduce the ranks of people lacking health insurance. He said that it amounts to a "partisan piece of legislation," disappointing hopes for compromise that had been raised Wednesday by a congenial exchange of letters between Clinton and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

On the budget bill, Clinton reiterated his complaint that Republicans failed to include provisions to grant legal residence to at least 500,000 immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally before 1986, and to give immigration rights to certain Central American and Haitian refugees now enjoyed by Nicaraguans and Cubans. Clinton also upbraided Republicans for failing to include legislation expanding the federal hate crime law and funding federal tobacco litigation.

The Republican budget bill contains some provisions meant to help certain illegal immigrants apply for permanent residence. But Clinton said Republicans had not gone far enough.

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