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Impasse Intensifies on Capitol Hill as Clinton, GOP Leaders Exchange Barbs

Congress: Hung up on tax cuts and immigration reform, negotiations spill into the weekend and, as one lawmaker threatens, could extend to the election.


WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Friday forced a bitterly divided Congress to skip the campaign trail and work through the weekend as Republican leaders on Capitol Hill struggled to solve a year-end legislative impasse that threatens to become an election issue.

Negotiations on a must-pass bill to fund education, health and labor programs were intense. An accord seemed almost at hand as Democrats sought to earmark billions of dollars for education and other programs and secure guarantees that money would be spent on school repairs.

Still, the two parties remained at loggerheads over tax credits for new school construction and immigration reform. Those issues had led Clinton on Thursday to promise vetoes on another budget bill and on a measure containing tax breaks, a minimum wage hike and increased funding for health care providers.

Clinton stepped up the pressure Friday, accusing Republicans of trying to shut the administration out of crucial tax and budget talks so the GOP could give last-minute breaks to special interests.

"Here we are, almost a month past the end of the fiscal year, and there is still some very vital work to be done by Congress," Clinton told reporters. "And I have the feeling that the congressional majority has not yet decided whether to wrap up with more progress or score partisan points and leave town--and that would leave vital national needs unmet."

Furious Republicans replied that the president was reaching too far into the details of lawmaking and that his party would suffer the consequences in the Nov. 7 election.

"Did somebody change the Constitution?" asked Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), the No. 2 leader in the Senate. Clinton and his surrogates, Nickles charged, "are acting like they're members of Congress, and they're not."

Nickles told reporters that he planned to go home over the weekend to watch a college football game--meaning that he will miss one and maybe two votes on stopgap measures to fund several federal agencies.

Three weeks after Congress' targeted adjournment and four weeks into the new fiscal year, the road map for finishing its work remains maddeningly unclear.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a key negotiator on health and education funding, called the situation "mass confusion."

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House minority leader, suggested, half-jokingly, that Congress could be in session on election day.

On Friday, the Senate cleared on a mostly partisan, 49-42 vote a $37.5-billion bill funding the Commerce, State and Justice departments. But a veto fight hangs over that legislation because of Republican resistance to a Democratic plan to ease immigration laws. Eventually, Congress will have to find an acceptable compromise on it, and on the education-health budget bill, to avoid a government shutdown. Eleven other funding bills, of the 13 needed each year, already are settled.

Many Congress members in both parties are anxious to keep alive portions of the tax bill, which the House passed Thursday. It includes tax breaks worth $240 billion over 10 years, a $1 increase over two years in the minimum wage, and a $28-billion increase over five years in funding for hospitals, health maintenance organizations and other health care providers.

In a move that gave those lawmakers hope, the Senate GOP leadership on Friday delayed action on that measure until next week.

Normally, procedural maneuverings and cries of gridlock on Capitol Hill are of little note. But they are taking on fresh importance as the countdown continues to an election in which the White House and control of Congress are at stake.

Republicans hold a precarious 222-209 edge in the House and a slightly firmer 54-46 majority in the Senate. Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, is closely identified with Clinton's legislative agenda. To the extent that Clinton gains or loses in this confrontation, Gore's candidacy could be affected.

On the Republican side, Texas Gov. George W. Bush is pledging to bring bipartisanship back to Washington if he wins the presidency. Bush hopes to boost the electoral fortunes of his GOP supporters on Capitol Hill--without suffering collateral damage himself if congressional Republicans take a beating from Clinton.

The president took a tough line Friday in remarks to reporters in the White House Rose Garden, accusing the Republican leadership of pandering to the party's right wing and shutting out Democrats.

"Republicans basically kicked the Democrats and the White House out of the [negotiating] room," Clinton said in a description of one measure, "and they came up with a bill and then they called us and said: 'Now, we took care of this, that or the other concern of yours. Now you guys just be cooperative and sign off on what we have decided to do.' "

Clinton reiterated his pledge to veto the two tax and budget bills, even if it means becoming locked in discussions and debates with congressional Republicans through the election.

"If we get a negotiation, we'll have a compromise bill that will be an honorable compromise," he said.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said it is Clinton who has refused to compromise.

"Next year, thank goodness, we are going to have a different president," Lott said. "Hopefully, we will have a better atmosphere around here. Maybe we can work together."

Republicans also noted that Clinton himself had been engaged in fund-raising and campaigning while Congress continues its work. Lott's staff related one episode in which Clinton was unavailable to take a phone call from Lott at a critical point Wednesday evening because he apparently was attending a campaign event for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for the Senate in New York.

"While Republicans in Congress are working for the American people, the president's become the campaigner in chief," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference.

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