From federal funding for the arts to a $3,000 bump in their own paychecks, lawmakers picked their way through numerous contentious items Tuesday as they labored on overdue spending bills at the beginning of the new fiscal year.
With nine of 13 routine spending measures incomplete, the House and Senate rushed through stopgap legislation needed to make sure the government could open for business without disruption today. In contrast to the political brinksmanship of previous years, there was little or no controversy surrounding the measure, and the president’s signature was assured.
“It will be signed by the president,” said Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., the House Appropriations Committee chairman. “And we can complete our work.”
There was plenty to do, with only four of the spending bills cleared for Clinton’s approval by the Oct. 1 beginning of the fiscal year, Congress’ nominal deadline.
For his part, Clinton signed a $9.2 billion measure for military housing and other construction projects but signaled he might use his new line-item veto power to reject individual items. “I am concerned … that the Congress has chosen to add funds for projects that the Department (of Defense) has not identified as priorities,” he said.
There was plenty of controversy to go around in other legislation.
One late-blooming issue was triggered halfway around the world when Israel refused to extradite a teenage suspect in a dismemberment-murder of a Maryland man. In a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Livingston said he would “introduce this issue into consideration” of the foreign aid spending bill. Congressional sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Livingston might seek to withhold as much as $50 million in American aid to Israel pending the return of Samuel Sheinbein.
One measure ready for final passage, covering the Treasury Department and other agencies, drew attention principally for paving the way for a $3,072 cost-of-living increase in the congressional pay of $133,600. Final House passage came on a tense 220-207 roll call, with Speaker Newt Gingrich aggressively seeking GOP support on the House floor. The measure makes no direct mention of the increase but customarily has been used to block cost-of-living raises. This time it did not.
Negotiators for the House and Senate agreed to provide $98 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, a setback for House Republican leaders who had led a campaign to cut off the federal subsidy for the arts.
A measure covering the District of Columbia became the setting for a broader, partisan struggle over education. By a scant two votes, Senate Democrats upheld their filibuster against a Republican proposal to give vouchers to low-income students for use in the public or private schools of their choice. President Clinton spoke out against such vouchers, while senior Republicans were equally quick to support them. “How could anyone deny a poor child the opportunity to escape some of the district’s most violent and undisciplined schools?” said House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, sponsor of a similar proposal in the House.
Gaining final passage was a bill providing money for the government’s energy and water programs - including what legislators said would be the last money ever for the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority. Like the other spending bills, it was studded with projects for powerful lawmakers.
“This bill is laden with pork-barrel spending,” complained Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said that it included $32 million for seven projects not contained in either the House or Senate measure.
More troubled was a bill providing more than $12 billion for transportation programs. Different versions have cleared the House and Senate, but compromise talks are stalled in a nasty regional dispute over Love Field, an airport in Dallas.