Clinton's Stealth Spending Bills Are Slipping Through Congress

With kudos from a successful foreign trip ringing in his ears, Bill Clinton is also enjoying some unheralded success on the domestic front. While fighting to save his tax bill in a House-Senate conference, the President is recording some victories as the rest of his budget wends its way through Congress' Byzantine appropriations process.

This time, Clinton's approach to spending has been the opposite of his high-profile, futile effort to save his stimulus bill last spring. Talks to shift spending to "investments" in education, training, health, and infrastructure have been kept quiet, with much more success. With work on 13 spending bills nearly finished in the House and getting under way in the Senate, the notoriously independent appropriators are giving Clinton a better batting average than any President has enjoyed in two decades. "He has done very well," says House committee member Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "You have to contrast it to what we've been through for the past 12 years."

SHARING THE GOODIES. In all, Congress seems on its way to giving Clinton $16.7 billion worth of the "investment" spending he had sought. "We're getting about half of what we wanted," says a satisfied Robert E. Rubin, director of Clinton's National Economic Council. Lawmakers have been most generous in funding Clinton's requests for new money for the sick and the poor. According to the Center for Budget & Policy Priorities, the House approved 84% of money that the White House requested for 29 programs benefiting low-income people. He got $720 million of the $1.3 billion requested for AIDS and other health research. Other initiatives have fared less well. The House has approved only 42% of Clinton's requested increase for the Commerce Dept. and $190 million of the $1 billion sought to support education reform. The Transportation Dept. is likely to get about half the increase Clinton asked for.

Clinton's $500 billion deficit-reduction goal is the main bar to more spending. Congress has trimmed projects ranging from national service to "empowerment" zones, depressed areas given special tax breaks to lure business. One reason for White House success is that control of funding is tightly held by the members of the appropriations committees. Democrats, who beat up on Clinton over taxes, want to make good on the spending bills. And Republican appropriators often go along in exchange for their share of the goodies. At this point, the fate of Clinton's spending program rests mainly with Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). And this time, Byrd, whose excessive partisan zeal inspired the withering GOP attack on the stimulus program, is likely to deliver for Clinton.

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