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Republican Congress Forces Clinton to Narrow Priorities

By Charles Babington and Eric Pianin

President Clinton vetoed a major spending bill Monday and signed another, as the Republican-led Congress forced him to narrow his budget priorities for the year and acknowledge the delay or possible death of initiatives such as enhancing HMO patients’ rights, tightening gun restrictions and adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Unable to circumvent the Republican majority on these issues, the president is focusing on a significantly smaller wish list in final budget negotiations with Congress, White House officials said. It includes hiring 100,000 new teachers and 50,000 police officers, toughening some environmental regulations and devoting more money to foreign aid.

Even as he compromised with Congress by signing the $268 billion Defense Department spending bill, Clinton Monday vetoed the appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments, and criticized the GOP leadership for approving a congressional pay raise while proposing across-the-board spending cuts in the budget.

Highlighting the difficulties still facing congressional and administration budget negotiators, the president accused House and Senate leaders of promoting “schemes,” “gimmicks” and “corporate welfare.” He threatened to veto more spending bills, raising the possibility that Congress will have to pass yet another stopgap resolution late this week to keep the federal government operating while the various appropriations bills for the new fiscal year are completed.

“I will not allow Congress to raise its own pay and fund its own pork barrel projects and still make devastating across-the-board cuts in everything from education to child nutrition to the FBI,” Clinton told reporters Monday afternoon.

The House had planned to consider a 1.4 percent across-the-board spending cut as early as Tuesday, when it was to take up the appropriations measure for the departments of Labor, Health and Education. Clinton called the broad-based spending cut a “terrible” idea. But the House postponed consideration of the measure-- which is combined with the District of Columbia appropriations bill -- until it can resolve a dispute with the Senate over whether private companies can run needle-exchange programs in Washington.

On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders hailed the defense bill’s signing as a signal of both GOP potency and the ability of the two branches of government to reach accord on spending measures. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the president “realized that while there may still be some disputes over the budget process, it’s time to put partisan politics aside and work together to further our security interests.”

Clinton said his congressional allies probably could have narrowly sustained a veto of the defense bill, “but I didn’t think it was fair, frankly, to put the Democrats in the position of being attacked by the Republicans for being against the defense budget that the Democratic Party has basically pursued.”

The giant military spending bill is popular in both parties, in part because it finances a 4.8 percent pay raise for military personnel, the biggest increase in 18 years.

Clinton said Monday he vetoed the State, Justice and Commerce bill “because it fails to fund the additional 50,000 community police we need to keep crime going down in our communities. ... And by failing to provide for our obligations, including our U.N. dues and arrears, it imperils not only our vote in the United Nations but the ability to meet our obligations and, therefore, to maintain our national security.”

The president said he would veto the Interior Department spending bill unless Congress changes it. Congress has declined to fully fund his “Lands Legacy” initiative, aimed at acquiring environmentally and culturally significant land that is threatened by development. Clinton also opposes several environmental provisions. One involves the amount of public land that can be used by mining companies to dump waste from mines. Another would postpone for at least six months a new formula for calculating the payments oil companies must make for extracting oil and natural gas from public lands.

The day’s events underscored how Washington’s divided government -- a Republican-run Congress and Democratic-controlled White House -- enables each party to thwart the other’s major initiatives. Earlier this year Clinton vetoed the GOP’s fiscal centerpiece, a 10-year, $792 billion tax-cut plan.