President Clinton and the Republican Congress raced Friday toward a collision over two stopgap budget bills that is all but certain to shut down the federal government on Tuesday.
Clinton vowed to veto both bills unless Congress strips them of all conditions, while House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., refused to meet the demands.
The two pending bills are quite limited in themselves, but have come to symbolize the budgetary differences dividing Clinton from Republicans over the future role of the federal government.
The budget war is already defining the politics of 1996; a new CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll Friday showed Clinton beating Dole 53-43, helped largely by voter discontent with GOP budget plans.
Against that political backdrop, brinkmanship and heated partisan rhetoric about the looming budget showdown ruled the day Friday.
First, Clinton appeared in the White House press room to denounce the GOP Congress as “deeply irresponsible,” called on the lawmakers to work on the budget through the weekend, then climbed in his limousine to go play golf. It was a federal holiday.
Not long afterwards, Gingrich and Dole sauntered into the Senate TV press gallery, each carrying a golf club, and denounced Clinton in sometimes sarcastic tones for choosing golf over budget negotiations.
“We will not send him a clean bill,” Gingrich insisted. “Because we want him to sit down and negotiate.”
Clinton has not discussed the budget with Dole and Gingrich for eight days. The White House says he will not until Congress moves toward accepting his budgetary priorities.
Meanwhile, by a 219-185 vote, the House passed and sent to the White House one of the two bills. It would permit the government to borrow up to another $67 billion through Dec. 12.
Without such authority, the Treasury will bump into the legal ceiling on its ability to borrow by next Wednesday, which would force Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to engage in extraordinary cash-management maneuvers - such as borrowing from federal trust funds - to avoid the first default in U.S. history.
The bill would prohibit Rubin from resorting to such tactics. “This is deeply irresponsible,” Clinton said. It will draw “an automatic veto,” said his press spokesman, Mike McCurry.
The Senate is expected to send Clinton the second bill Monday, only hours before federal authority to spend money - except for “essential services” - expires at midnight. The bill would allow federal agencies to keep spending through Dec. 1, buying time for Clinton and Congress to negotiate a final budget for fiscal 1996 and beyond. Congress has not approved most of the 13 annual spending bills that were supposed to be sent to Clinton by Oct. 1.
Clinton intends to veto the stopgap spending bill too, because of conditions the GOP attached.
Clinton said the American people deserve a debate between Democrats and Republicans over budget priorities for government, “but we cannot have that serious debate under the threat of a government default or shutdown. And we cannot cut Medicare, education and the environment as a condition of keeping the government open.” He demanded “clean” bills without conditions.
If no stopgap spending measure is signed into law by midnight Monday, some 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed indefinitely starting Tuesday until Clinton and Congress strike an agreement. Budget Director Alice Rivlin will detail administration plans for the shutdown today.
If the government does shut down, the largest federal workers union intends to file a lawsuit challenging the distinction between “essential” and other federal workers.
“We want to force the issue,” said John Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The USA Today/CNN poll showed that solid majorities oppose the GOP budget as going too far. A 60-33 majority in the poll said Clinton should veto the GOP budget bill.
Republicans acknowledged that support for their budget is eroding and complained they’ve been unfairly branded as budget “terrorists” by the White House even as Clinton holds back from serious negotiations.
Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, the House Budget chairman, said, “We haven’t been able to get our message out. We have not been able to use the bully pulpit that the president has to convince people of the reasonableness of our position.”
“This is the most colossal waste of time and energy I have ever seen,” said House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.
Amidst all the public posturing over the two short-term budget bills, House and Senate GOP negotiators met behind closed doors to work out final details of their main budget bill. They hope to pass that by the end of next week.
Republican sources said they had resolved virtually all their differences on Medicare, welfare and curbs on the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor.
Negotiations over Medicaid were moving more slowly. And House and Senate differences over tax cut proposals were expected to be worked out over the weekend.
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