The Senate put the Republican-controlled Congress on a collision course with the White House over spending priorities Thursday, passing the first bill that President Clinton has vowed to veto: a measure that slashes $16.4 billion from funds already appropriated.
But because the bill also contains more than $6 billion in disaster-assistance relief for California, Oklahoma and other states, Republican leaders urged the president to back down from his threat even as they conceded that they lacked the votes for an override.
Noting that the so-called rescission bill would cut the budget deficit by more than $9 billion, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said it would be “a great disservice to this country” and “a major, major mistake” for the president to veto this “first step toward a balanced budget.”
Appearing at a rare, joint Capitol Hill news conference, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., added: “I would strongly urge the president to sign it.”
But their pleas fell on deaf ears at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Just minutes before the Senate passed the measure, Clinton told reporters in the White House Rose Garden that he would veto the bill “if it passes in this form.”
The president’s chief objection to the measure is that it cuts too deeply into programs on education, housing, airport improvement, job training and the environment - but too little into wasteful “pork” construction projects.
“I am for making a down payment on the deficit reduction in this rescission bill,” Clinton said. “I certainly want to get the money out to Oklahoma City, to finish our obligations in the California earthquake, to deal with the floods in the South … .”
The bill also contains $250 million for antiterrorism efforts in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing as well as $275 million in debt relief for Jordan, both expenditures also favored by Clinton.
The White House-Congress standoff - coming at a time when the Senate has been mired in a protracted, partisan debate on a balanced budget resolution - underscores the difficulties ahead in reducing the deficit, a goal that both parties embrace. The GOP’s budget blueprint would slash more than $1 trillion over the next seven years largely by cutting the rate of growth in order to erase the deficit by the year 2002.
The rescission bill is the first major spendingcuts measure to come before the new Congress. Most of the $16.4 billion in savings would go toward deficit reduction.
Earlier this year, each house passed its own version of the rescission bill. The differences were reconciled by House and Senate negotiators in a conference committee that met over the past two weeks. After they produced a final version of the measure, Clinton made known his veto threat.
But the House, undaunted, passed the final bill without change last week and sent it to the Senate, which debated the measure late into Wednesday night. The Senate approved it early Thursday morning before lapsing back into another day of debate on the Republican budget resolution.
Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Thursday that the rescission bill would be sent to the White House “in the next few days.”
With more than $9 billion in deficit reduction in the bill, Livingston said, “It’s worth the president swallowing hard” and signing it.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Mike McCurry downplayed GOP suggestions that a presidential veto would unduly delay funding to California and Oklahoma City. He characterized such talk as “overextended rhetoric.”