A weary House approved a huge spending bill and tighter immigration laws on Saturday, handing victories to both Republicans and Democrats just five weeks before the election and moving Congress to the verge of adjournment.
By an overwhelming 370-37 vote, the House shipped the 3,000-page package combining both measures to the Senate. That chamber seemed likely to vote for final approval on Monday and send it to President Clinton, who has promised to sign it.
The House vote was the chamber’s last major business of 1996, and let members of the first GOP-controlled Congress in 40 years begin fleeing the Capitol for the campaign trail.
The immigration package, aimed at stemming the tide of illegal immigration that sweeps some 300,000 people to U.S. shores, “secures America’s borders…protects American jobs and saves taxpayers billions of dollars,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.
In marathon talks the night before, lawmakers and White House emissaries resolved a partisan impasse over how legal immigrants should be treated in what had been a separate immigration bill.
The stalemate had threatened to derail the bill, months in the making, which now is poised to become one of the most far-reaching pieces of social legislation enacted by the Republican-led Congress.
The impasse also had complicated year-end budget talks as lawmakers pushed to tack the immigration measure onto the spending bill. That prompted Republicans to accuse President Clinton on Friday of risking a government shutdown.
As Clinton and the Democrats see it, the new accord turns the package back toward its original purpose of combating illegal immigration and away from restricting benefits that legal immigrants can receive.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry, speaking on Clinton’s campaign plane flying to Rhode Island, described the deal as “very, very good. We’re satisfied we have measures that will continue to protect America’s borders while setting the right kind of standards for legal immigrants,” he said.
The negotiators agreed to limit the degree to which legal immigrants would be susceptible to losing certain benefits after a year on welfare. The White House had demanded limitations on legal immigrant benefits be dropped entirely.
The compromise includes provisions allowing welfare workers to verify immigrants’ legal status before giving them welfare checks. Illegal immigrants no longer would be allowed to qualify for Social Security benefits or public housing, and states could deny them drivers’ licenses.
In addition, the White House won a concession on its request that legal and illegal immigrants with AIDS or HIV infection be able to receive federally paid treatment.
“I find that inexplicable,” said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. He said the provision would be “a magnet” to attract people with AIDS to the United States.
The earnings requirement for U.S. residents wanting to sponsor foreign family members coming into the country would be increased slightly: from the current 100 percent of the poverty level to 125 percent. The original immigration bill passed by the House called for a 200 percent requirement.
The pledges of support signed by sponsors would become legal and binding documents.
The immigration package also would roughly double the size of the Border Patrol, stiffen penalties for document fraud and alien smuggling and establish pilot projects for employers to verify job applicants’ work eligibility. It would increase penalties on illegal aliens caught in this country.
The Republican side was deeply split last week over a provision sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., that would have allowed states to deny public education to children who are illegal aliens. The GOP agreed to drop the provision to avoid a threatened veto by Clinton.
On Saturday, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, called the new package “the most important immigration reform I’ll have seen in my lifetime.”
The attached budget package contains $244 billion for the Pentagon and $145 billion for the departments of Health and Human Services, Interior and dozens of other agencies for fiscal 1997.
Including funds for Medicaid and other benefit programs that are automatically paid, the measures contain about $600 billion - more than one-third of the entire federal budget.
The extra $6.5 billion Clinton won was for schools, anti-terrorism, fighting drugs and a host of other domestic programs. To finance it, lawmakers will use an auction of spots on the broadcast spectrum and a fund that insures financial institutions, plus $1 billion from the Pentagon’s budget.
As the final must-pass bill of the session, the spending package was crammed with provisions won by various legislators. There was:
A prohibition on people convicted of wife-beating or child abuse from obtaining a firearm, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
Money for a study of chemically “tagging” explosives so they can be traced. But in a victory for the National Rifle Association, black and smokeless powder used by many antique-gun fanciers - and the chief ingredients of most pipe bombs - would be excluded.
Aid to overseas family planning organizations would increase by $29 million to $385 million. The money cannot be used until summer, however, unless Congress votes to spend it earlier.
The defense bill, $9 billion higher than Clinton wanted, would provide a 3 percent pay increase for troops and $3.7 billion for anti-missile defense, $855 million more than the president wanted.
In a reversal from the domestic cuts they highlighted last year, Republicans wrote an election-year budget that went easier on many programs.
There would be $70 million extra for operating national parks, the same $4 billion Clinton requested for Head Start, and $491 million for Goals 2000, Clinton’s education reform program.
The House originally voted to kill Goals 2000.