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House Clears Way for New Budget Legislation Talks

By John E. Yang
The Washington Post

After a tumultuous and bitterly partisan week of budget brinksmanship, the House set the stage for another round of high-stakes talks between Congress and President Clinton by giving final congressional approval to key budget legislation Monday evening before going home for a week-long Thanksgiving recess.

The House voted 421-4 to approve a short-term spending bill to keep the government at full force for 25 days while Congress continues work on the remaining fiscal 1996 spending bills and begins talks with Clinton to wipe out the federal budget deficit by 2002.

"This is the beginning of the negotiation," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said on CNN. "We're not done yet. We still have several very tough weeks of negotation before we're finished."

The House action came at the end of the first work day since last Monday for some 700,000 federal workers after Congress and Clinton ended the longest period the government has gone without funding. The Smithsonian Institution and the Grand Canyon reopened, the State Department resumed processing passport applications and the Commerce Department began tracking the economy again.

The interim spending bill, which Clinton has promised to sign into law, includes a provision paying furloughed government workers for the last week. It also requires agencies to spend at a lower rate than they have been doing.

Clinton visited Capitol Hill Monday night to thank Democrats for sticking with him. The meeting was described by those attending as a pep rally, pulling Democrats together as they go home for Thanksgiving.

"We leave, I think, in the kind of shape that will make it possible for us to come back in a week and begin the hard negotiations of completing the kind of budget we think can broadly be accepted in this country," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), House Democratic Caucus chairman.

Two Democrats, Major R. Owens (N.Y.) and Pat Williams (Mont.), did not support Clinton Monday, voting against the interim spending bill. Republicans Wes Cooley (Ore.) and freshman Steven E. Stockman (Tex.) voted against the measure; Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.), a freshman, voted "present."

Monday night, the House also voted 235-192 to send the GOP's massive blueprint for eliminating the federal budget deficit by 2002 to Clinton -- and a promised veto. The House had approved the reconciliation legislation Friday; a second vote was necessary because of minor Senate changes. The far-reaching measure would cut taxes for most families, overhaul Medicare and give the states responsiblity for Medicaid and welfare.

But even as GOP lawmakers looked toward talks on those issues with Clinton, set to begin next week, they expressed concerns that the president was trying to back out of his agreement to balance the budget in seven years before it was even 24-hours-old.

Republicans seized on comments from White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta Monday morning that the administration agreed to balance the budget "in seven years or eight years" if the agreement protects the president's priorities as an indication that Clinton was backing away from the deal.

"This is not a goal, this is not an objective," said Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.). "This is a solid contract between the House, the Senate and the president. ... It's a sacred agreement." By signing the interim spending bill, Clinton "will have morally bound himself to a written contract with the American people," Gingrich told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

On Sunday, Clinton and House GOP leaders agreed that by Jan. 3 they would enact legislation to balance the budget by 2002, using the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's economic assumptions. The agreement, part of the short-term spending bill, also says the balanced-budget plan would "provide adequate funding for" such Clinton priorities as Medicaid, education and the environment.

House Republicans and Democrats, weary from a long week of partisan acrimony that saw lawmakers fight both verbally and physically, each claimed victory by focusing on different parts of Sunday night's agreement.

GOP freshmen claimed credit for forcing Clinton's agreement to their time frame. Democrats emphasized the provisions that stressed the president's priorities.