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Two Sides Narrow Difference to Billions in Budget Talks

By Dan Morgan
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

For a few hours last week, White House and GOP congressional negotiators attempting to head off a second government shut down on Dec. 15 found themselves separated by a mere $2.7 billion: two-tenths of one percent of the federal budget, and a pittance in fiscal terms.

The flurry of offers and counteroffers underlined a point that has often been overlooked in the heated political rhetoric over the budget. While the two sides are far apart over such issues as welfare reform, Medicaid and Medicare, the dollar differences over the 13 annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government through next September have narrowed.

But that is small consolation to government employees hoping for an end to uncertainty over their fiscal future. Republican leaders have made clear that the $6.5 billion or so that Clinton wants restored to pending appropriations bills will have to come from a separate seven-year budget deal, encompassing health, farm and other social legislation. Negotiations on that broke up in acrimony last week, and the likelihood of an agreement appeared more remote than ever Monday.

The appropriations bills still in dispute between the White House and Congress also include a series of GOP-backed legislative provisions that are unacceptable to the president, including curbs on enforcement of labor and environmental laws, language sought by anti-abortion forces, and concessions to western mining and logging interests.

"To say we're an eyelash of getting '96 appropriations solved based solely on dollars ignores the difficut if not intractable differences on legislative provisions," said a congressional source. "The difference in terms of dollars is pretty small, but that doesn't guarantee we can finish the process. You can't divorce appropriations from the big budget deal."

In the absence of enacted bills, Congress could offer to extend the short-term spending authority that expires Dec. 15. But new temporary legislation could further tighten the squeeze on departments and agencies, some of which already are being held to spending at three-quarters of the last fiscal year's rate. If Clinton vetos a new stopgap bill because it tightens the screws too hard, parts of the government would again shut down. In that case, Republicans say, Clinton would bear the onus.

And that is why Republicans, who now have tied the spending bills to the long-term budget negotiations, believe Clinton will be forced to come to the table.

Nevertheless, more progress has been made in enacting the measures that finance day-to-day government than partisan rhetoric sometimes suggests.

Seven of the 13 bills, including a Pentagon spending measure signed last week by the president, are now law. Most employees of the Departments of Treasury, Transportation, Agriculture, Defense, and Energy are covered by these full-year bills, and therefore would be unaffected by any new shut down.

At the heart of the battle between the White House and Congress are the bills which fund nine government departments, NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with dozens of smaller agencies. Those bills are the vehicles for funding numerous presidential priorities, including his Goals 2000 education reform program, the Americorps national service program, EPA's Environmental Technology Initiative, and the Advanced Technology Program in the Commerce Department.

Republicans have eliminated or deeply slashed all of those. For example, only $10 million was left in the Environmental Technology Initiative out of the $126.5 million requested by Clinton. In addition, Republicans have proposed reducing EPA's overall budget by nearly $1 billion from 1995, and sharply curtailing funds for enforcing clean air and water laws.

Yet sources in Congress and the administration said Monday that those are not large amounts of money in the overall framework of the federal budget and it should not be that difficult to resolve the differences. Many expect some or all of Clinton's high-priority programs to be restored as part of a final budget settlement.

The White House indicated last week that the president could sign the four bills if Congress restores $6.7 billion to them, with most going to job training, education and the environment. The GOP offered to restore $4 billion, and the differences have since narrowed by several hundred million dollars, sources said.

Unlike the testy negotiations over the broad seven-year budget reconciliation deal, negotiations over appropriations last week produced "good meetings, free of acrimony, with a willingness to keep talking," said one source.