Rushing to complete work and to adjourn for the year, the House of Representatives yielded to the Clinton administration early today in passing 1998 fiscal year spending bills for foreign operations and for the District of Columbia.
The votes came after midnight and Republican leaders’ removal of amendments that President Clinton had found objectionable. But in a bow to the conservatives who were behind the amendments, Republican leaders agreed to allow those issues to be voted on in separate, stand-alone legislation.
The compromise was a major victory for 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.
The House on a voice vote Wednesday night approved an interim federal highway bill that would provide about $15 billion in transportation grants to the states for the next six months. Under the plan, which House and Senate negotiators agreed to on Sunday, each state would receive at least half the federal transportation money that it received in 1997, giving Congress until next spring to work out a permanent six-year plan.
With the fast-track legislation off the political landscape, the last major pieces of legislation facing the first session of the 104th Congress are 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.
The House is expected to adjourn later today after completing work on the spending bill for Commerce, State and Justice. The Senate is to begin voting on the three remaining spending bills and the highway bill today and to complete its work as early as Friday.
The nearly $13 billion spending bill for foreign operations passed in the House on a vote of 333 to 76 after Republican leaders restored $385 million for international family-planning programs and removed language that would have prohibited federal funds from going to overseas programs or organizations that use their own money to promote abortion. But instead of a lump sum, the money will be allocated over a year at a rate of 8.34 percent, or $32 million a month.
An official of Population Action International criticized the plan as “doling out money by the teaspoon.”
“This is an unhappy compromise and no way to fund one of the world’s most respected programs,” said Victoria Markell, vice president of the population organization. “Rather, it is a way to cripple it.”
Federal law, under the so-called Mexico City Policy, already bars the use of federal money for overseas abortion services, but anti-abortion forces in the House tried to expand that language.
The Republicans also stripped from the foreign operations spending bill three provisions that are dear to the White House: reauthorization of the State Department, the United States’ payment of nearly $1 billion in back dues to the United Nations and $3.5 billion to help the International Monetary Fund bolster tottering economies in Southeast Asia.
Those three provisions will be lumped into a separate piece of legislation along with the language on international family planning that was removed from the spending bill.
International organizations like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund are frequent political targets of conservative Republicans. But the current fight comes at an especially crucial time.
The International Monetary Fund has announced that it will lend $17 billion to Thailand and $10 billion to Indonesia as part of an effort involving 25 nations, including the United States, to stabilize their currencies. Without such action, world leaders fear that other Southeast Asian nations will face similar problems.
Administration officials, led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, met Wednesday evening with Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders in an effort to negotiate a compromise over the issues.
The District of Columbia spending bill was approved on a voice vote. The bill, with $820 million, had been held up because of a fight over a Republican plan to provide $7 million for a school voucher program. It would provide $3,200 vouchers to 2,000 children from low-income families in Washington to allow the children to attend private schools. Democrats, including the president, opposed the idea, arguing that it would erode the public school system.
The Senate voted on Sunday to remove the voucher proposal from the spending bill and to make it a separate bill, and the House leadership decided on Wednesday to go along with that approach.