In a colorful ceremony of self-congratulation, a bipartisan bevy of lawmakers beamed Tuesday as President Clinton signed two bills that will cut taxes, raise spending on many social programs, and - if everything goes right for five years - balance the federal budget in fiscal 2002.
If that happens, it will be a remarkable achievement, the first balanced budget since fiscal 1969. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Clinton and about 20 members of Congress held a sisboom-bah patriotic rally on the sunny south lawn of the White House, replete with 30 U.S. flags, bunting on the mansion’s balcony and martial music from the Marine Band.
“A true milestone for our nation,” Clinton termed it. “I believe that we have fulfilled the responsibility of our generation to guarantee opportunity to the next generation … The sun is rising on America again.”
House Speaker Newt Gingrich was equally effusive.
“We have proven that the American constitutional system works,” the Georgia Republican said, “that slowly, over time, we listened to the will of the American people, that we reached beyond parties, we reached beyond institutions, and we find ways to get things done.”
The next test of this new bipartisan spirit will come soon.
By Monday, the president must decide which, if any, items in the two bills he wants to delete with his new line-item veto power. He has indicated he will use his new authority sparingly, apparently on the theory that setting a few choice examples now will deter lawmakers later from slipping special-interest favors into tax and spending measures.
While GOP leaders have warned that any vetoes would represent a betrayal of the budget agreement, Clinton is under pressure from reform-minded lawmakers to veto many of the 79 tax breaks that provide targeted relief to individuals or a small number of businesses.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., for one, has urged Clinton to line out a special tax break for Amway, the household products distributor, that could exceed $100 million. Others have called for vetoes of favors conferred on a Dallas beet-sugar mogul and employees of a Texas insurance company who won exemption from estate taxes for stock they inherited from the company’s late founder.
“All of these tax breaks have one feature in common,” DeFazio said Tuesday. “They provide a tax benefit to a handful of individuals and corporations. Very few of them have received any public scrutiny or congressional debate.”
House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri - who opposed the budget deal and did not attend Tuesday’s ceremony - also weighed in on the line-item veto argument. Gephardt said the 79 special-interest tax breaks “sidestep public accountability through back room deals and under-the-table favors.”
Gephardt said it was up to the president to make it clear that “this type of special-interest sleight of hand will not be tolerated.”
A host of other issues remain on the agenda when Congress returns in September from its summer recess.
The highest priority are the remaining spending bills to finance the government for the new fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.
Three of the 13 bills remain in the Senate; five remain in the House. Neither house has completed action on the ever-controversial bill to fund the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services.
And a major fight is brewing in the House between GOP leaders and dissident Republican conservatives who have threatened to load up all remaining spending bills with numerous changes incorporating many “Contract with America” items - such as anti-abortion, antiregulation and legal reforms - that were quashed by the president in 1995 and 1996.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Tax cuts vary The average tax cuts vary widely from state to state from $768 annually in Nevada to $285 in West Virginia according to a study by Citizens for Tax Justice. In general, states with the highest incomes will get the largest tax cuts, the study said. Nationally, the average yearly reduction per tax return was estimated at $498. Among individual states, the report said tax cuts annually would average $570 in Washington state, $555 in California, $542 in Alaska, $437 in North Carolina and $389 in South Carolina. South Carolina’s would be eighth-smallest of the 50 states.