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Budget Bills Stall in Shadow of War

Politics: Congress has passed none of the 13 measures needed by Oct. 1 to run the government.

September 15, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Even as Congress grapples with a potential war with Iraq and creation of a new homeland security department, the nation's premier deliberative body is making a hash of its more mundane but crucial responsibility: That little matter of keeping the government financed.

The new federal budget year begins Oct. 1, but Congress has yet to pass a single one of the 13 appropriation bills needed to keep government agencies running. The expected result is a year-end scramble that could end up adding billions to an already burgeoning budget deficit.

The fiscal logjam is rooted, in part, in tried-and-true partisan divisions. Democrats want to spend more, Republicans less. But there are extra elements roiling the situation this year: bitter divisions among Republicans and mixed signals from a White House increasingly preoccupied with building the case for a war on Iraq.

President Bush repeatedly has preached the gospel of fiscal discipline, but he signed a $180-billion, 10-year farm bill early this year which critics derided as a budget buster. He also has conceded that budget deficits are acceptable in times of war and recession. And on Capitol Hill, some are wondering whether Bush, as he seeks to mobilize the nation and the world for an assault on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, will want to spend political capital on nickel-and-diming congressional appropriations.

"I don't think the White House has focused on this," said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. "They are on to the big questions of whether to go to war."

If Bush does continue to lean on Congress to rein in spending, he may clash with the political needs of fellow Republicans up for reelection. Even true-believing fiscal conservatives can be found supporting crowd-pleasing expenditures, like the $6 billion in drought relief approved by the Senate last week with substantial Republican support over Bush's objections.

It adds up to cross pressures so complex that many lawmakers predict Congress will throw up its hands before it adjourns for the election campaign in mid-October--and put off major spending decisions for a lame-duck session that convenes after the Nov. 5 vote.

"I see no scenario where we can avoid a lame-duck session," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), another member of the Appropriations Committee.

None of this means the government is going to run out of money or be partially shut down, as it was in the 1995-96 budget battle between President Clinton and congressional Republicans. When the Oct. 1 deadline arrives, Congress will likely pass stopgap funding to keep the government running until the 13 spending bills are passed.

At issue is the part of the budget over which Congress has the most control--the programs financed by annual appropriations rather than by the automatic funding provided for entitlements, such as welfare and Social Security.

Bush has proposed appropriating $759 billion for those programs--up from $728 billion this year--for enterprises ranging from military weapons to education aid. House Republican leaders are trying to stick to Bush's overall figure, but members of both parties on the House Appropriations Committee are angling for more. And the Democrat-controlled Senate is on track to spend $768 billion.

The process of actually allocating that money has been unusually slow this year. So far, the House has passed only five of the 13 spending bills; the Senate has passed only three. None has been finalized by House-Senate negotiations and sent to the White House.

Not since 1995, when budget disputes were so bitter they prompted the partial government shutdown, has Congress run so far behind.

Intra-GOP tensions have slowed action in the House, where conservative Republicans who want to stick to Bush's budget are at loggerheads with moderates seeking more for popular social programs.

The big sticking point is the bill that finances the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Conservatives refuse to vote for more than the $130 billion Bush has requested; moderate Republicans--and Democrats--won't vote for a bill that does not provide more. GOP moderates are pleading with their leaders that under the Bush budget, college tuition grants, energy assistance and other politically popular programs would be shortchanged, and moderates won't endorse that, especially on the eve of an election.

"There are some political realities," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), who has led the GOP opposition to Bush's budget on the Labor-HHS-Education bill. "The votes just aren't there. These are issues most of the moderates care tremendously about."

The Senate's backlog on spending bills stems largely from partisan divisions over priorities. The disputes have proved so intractable that senators never passed an annual budget resolution--the broad blueprint that traditionally sets guidelines for the 13 spending bills that follow.

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