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Debt Ceiling Looms Again House, Senate Far Apart On Bill To Keep Government Operating

Republican congressional leaders Tuesday night struggled to reach agreement on bills that would temporarily lift the debt ceiling and provide stopgap funding for the government, but deep disagreements still existed between the House and Senate.

The impasse between the two Republican-controlled bodies must be resolved before Congress can confront the White House on budget issues - and to keep the government operating beyond next week. The current stopgap funding bill expires Monday, and the $4.9 trillion debt ceiling will be breached just two days after that.

Many House Republicans, especially the large freshman class, are angling to stuff the bills with provisions that would, for instance, dismantle the Commerce Department and sharply reduce government funding to activist groups. But senators are leery of using the debt-ceiling and government-funding legislation to pursue partisan goals.

Another group of House Republicans is demanding that President Clinton commit in writing to a seven-year balanced budget plan or else they will vote against any increase in the debt ceiling.

Meanwhile, in a move that also appeared to have little support in the Senate, the House Ways and Means Committee drafted a debt-ceiling bill that would lift the ceiling from the current $4.9 trillion until Dec. 12 and then snap back to a level of $4.8 trillion unless Clinton signed the Republican budget plan. The bill would also hamstring the Treasury Department from certain financial manipulations to keep below the ceiling. Thus, the United States would instantly default on its debts if Clinton vetoed the bill.

Hordes of reporters surrounded congressional leaders as they traipsed from meeting to meeting in an effort to reach a consensus. Most members were mum - House Majority leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, simply passed out business cards for his press secretary as he passed through one crowd - but the brief remarks by some members indicated that the two bodies were far apart.

“I’m very hopeful that in the debt legislation we’re going to eliminate the Commerce Department,” said Budget Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, as he entered one meeting.” We ought to show a little bit of faith by zapping out that bureaucracy.”

But only hours earlier Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., had told reporters that he did not think a provision to dismantle the Commerce Department should be in the bill.

House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La., said a provision limiting federal lobbying of organizations receiving federal grants - known informally as “defunding the left” - would likely end up in the bill to keep the government running while the House and Senate reach agreement on spending bills.