Rushing to complete work and to adjourn for the year, Republican congressional leaders agreed Wednesday to a compromise with the White House on the last three federal spending bills for 1998, yielding to the administration in fights over international family planning and school vouchers.
The tentative deal is a major victory for President Clinton, who had threatened to veto the spending bills because of the contentious issues. But it is a bittersweet victory since it comes on the heels of his failure to win one of his major legislative goals of the year, enhanced trade authority or “fast track” legislation.
Republican leaders still have to discuss the proposed compromises with their rank-in-file members, and many Democrats are openly hostile to some aspects of the deals. But congressional leaders said they were confident that their plan would break the impasse over the spending bills and allow Congress to leave town by Friday.
A vote on a bailout for Amtrak and passage of the spending bills for the departments of Commerce, State and Justice and the federal judiciary system; the District of Columbia; and for Foreign Operations are the last major pieces of legislation facing the first session of the 104th Congress.
The Senate voted on Sunday evening to consolidate the three spending bills into a single piece of legislation, known as an omnibus bill, and to strip or soften most of the issues that have stalled the measures and drawn veto threats from the White House.
Republican leaders in the House decided to accept some Senate compromises but persuaded their counterparts in the Senate to consider each bill separately.
A major sticking point has been Republican conservative-backed language in the $12.8 billion spending bill for Foreign Operations that would prohibit federal money from going to international family planning programs or organizations that use their own money to promote abortion.
Current federal law, under what is called the Mexico City policy, already bars the use of federal money for overseas abortion services, but anti-abortion forces in the House had tried to expand that language.
Senior Republican aides said that House conservatives had agreed to drop the controversial provision and to accept essentially the same spending levels and conditions approved in the 1997 budget. Under that plan, international family planning groups would receive $385 million in 1998 but in monthly payments of 8.3 percent of the total amount.
In return, the conservatives have demanded that their leaders delay the State Department reauthorization bill, a move that would hold up a plan for the United States to pay about $1 billion in back dues to the United Nations and payments to the International Monetary Fund.
The administration has requested a $3.5 billion credit line for the IMF to help the agency bolster the currencies of Southeast Asian nations. But Republican conservatives have made that request a political hostage, along with the White House request to pay back dues to the United Nations and to reorganize the State Department.
Senior majority aides said Wednesday that House Republicans were pressing for a separate bill on the reorganization plan and the U.N. payments, but would also include the objectionable language on family planning spending.
Administration officials — led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin — met Wednesday evening with Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other Republican leaders in an effort to negotiate a compromise over the issues.
The House has decided to follow the Senate’s lead to break an impasse over the $820 million spending bill for the District of Columbia. That bill was held up over the Republicans’ plan to provide $7 million for a program that would give $3,200 vouchers to 2,000 children from low-income families to attend private schools. Democrats, including the president, oppose the idea, arguing that it would erode the public school system.
The Senate voted Sunday to make the voucher proposal a separate bill, and the House leadership has decided to go along with that approach.
The major breakthrough on the Commerce, Justice and State departments bill came when Republican leaders and the White House agreed to a compromise over a disputed method of estimating the population in 2000.
The Census Bureau would be allowed to proceed with a test next year on the use of statistical sampling, as the administration wanted. In return, Republicans won an agreement that the House speaker would be allowed to challenge in court the use of sampling and that the government would pay for the lawsuit.
That provision angered many Democrats to the point that many said Wednesday night that they would vote against the spending bill for Commerce and the other departments. But the Democrats concede that they lacked the votes to defeat the bill.