Offsets Spat Marks Latest Chapter In House GOP's Struggle To Govern
Imperative for cuts in domestic programs could lead to political fallout and provokes early skirmish in battle for Speaker's job
By Jeffrey L. Katz, CQ Staff Writer
Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert L. Livingston, R-La., left a meeting with House GOP leaders March 17 and strode purposefully through Statuary Hall, a new weight on his shoulders.
A supplemental spending bill that Livingston had hoped would sail though the House had just gotten a lot heavier. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other leaders had ordered Livingston to find cuts in domestic programs to pay for the roughly $2.9 billion in additional spending for domestic disaster aid and for military operations in Bosnia and Iraq.
The political fallout from that decision could be vast. Cutting that much money from already tight budgets for popular domestic programs could give Democrats and even some Republicans a reason to vote no, complicating floor passage.
It could also give President Clinton an opening to veto the bill and criticize Republicans for cutting important domestic programs -- a tactic he has deployed with great success in past showdowns with House GOP leaders.
In a similar fight a year ago over flood relief aid (PL 105-18), Clinton used his veto to embarrass Republicans into removing controversial items before he would sign the bill. If Republicans provoked and lost another such confrontation in an election year, the price could be high.
The internal spat over offsets also marked an early skirmish in Livingston's ongoing campaign to succeed Gingrich as Speaker in an election that could come as soon as next year, if Gingrich exits Congress to run for the GOP presidential nomination. In a showdown with his chief rival, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, Livingston had just been forced to back down.
So Livingston chose his words carefully as he walked briskly from Gingrich's office toward his own. "The leadership has decided to offset everything with non-defense discretionary spending," he said. "I intend to follow the dictates of our leadership." Asked about the bill's prospects for success, Livingston repeated his response, word for word.
Just a week earlier, Livingston and Gingrich had agreed that the supplemental spending bill ought to advance without offsetting cuts. The need for cuts seemed less compelling, now that a budget surplus was projected for fiscal 1998. And appropriators figured that moving the bill without offsetting cuts would assure smooth passage of a measure on which Republicans were not looking for trouble.
The Majority's Burden
Forcing Livingston to perform an about-face over the offsets was just the latest chapter in the long-running struggle by House Republicans to deal with the challenges of being the majority party. Tensions continue between making the compromises inherent in governing and sticking to the ideological imperatives that many believe won them the majority in the first place.
Livingston's instinct was to avoid offering up the bill in a potential veto showdown with the president.
Robert D. Reischauer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, considers a veto struggle a realistic possibility. By insisting on offsets, Reischauer said, House Republicans have chosen a path that "raises the stakes, raises the level of political conflict and gives the president an opportunity. And the president is a black belt when it comes to parrying the offensive action of the Republican Party on appropriations bills."
Searching for offsets in domestic spending programs is already causing discomfort among some of the moderate Republicans who insisted on finding the spending cuts in the first place.
And it has set the stage for another showdown between hard-line House
Republicans and the more accommodationist Senate, where Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., is skeptical about finding acceptable offsets.
As for the personal political repercussions for Livingston, the incident seemed to be a win for Armey, who better reflected the House Republicans' conservative impulses on this issue. The skirmish reinforced the view of some House Republicans that Livingston is too quick to compromise with Democrats. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said Livingston's willingness to abide by the leadership's decision without a fight "was a sign he was listening a tad more than usual" now that he is campaigning for Speaker.
"I will let Mr. Livingston speak for himself," Armey said tersely, when asked about Livingston's position. "I am committed to the offsets."
That Armey's view prevailed may be a sign that while he has been plagued by questions about his legislative acumen -- he pushed last year's disaster relief strategy -- his communications skills and role in last year's abortive coup against Gingrich, Armey is not often bested in his devotion to conservative ideals.
House and Senate GOP leaders decided March 10 to split Clinton's request for supplemental spending in order to ease the passage of emergency money for the Pentagon and for El Nino-related disaster aid.
Funding for those needs was considered more urgent than programs placed in a second supplemental bill, which would contain U.S. payments to the United Nations and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Spending offsets are not an issue for those programs because their funding was included in last year's budget agreement.
But a majority of House Republicans apparently supports finding offsets on the first supplemental bill. They want to underscore their devotion to fiscal responsibility even in this new era of balanced budgets. "It sends a strong message -- we're committed to containing government spending," said David L. Hobson, R-Ohio.
The decision to find offsets was made in a meeting of GOP leaders who hold elected party posts. According to those who attended, there was widespread support for the idea. When Gingrich asked if moderates would support the position, it was noted that 14 of them had released a letter March 12 urging offsets.
GOP Policy Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said: "Everybody understands that we can't pass it without the offsets."
Livingston, included in a subsequent and larger meeting of GOP leaders, expressed concern but said he would abide by the group's wishes. While it is clear that Republicans would abandon the bill if it had no offsets, appropriators worry that the measure could have a rough ride if all Democrats vote no and some Republicans waver.
GOP budget hawks hailed the outcome. "That is a monumental change from where we were a week ago," said Mark W. Neumann, R-Wis. Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, called it a "great victory. I don't care where it's offset from, as long as it's paid for."
But the decision to take all of the offsets from domestic programs has consequences. Traditionally, increases in defense or domestic programs have been offset by reductions in similar programs. However, GOP leaders agreed that raiding other defense accounts to pay for overseas missions could not be repeated this year without seriously impinging on training missions and readiness of non-deployed forces.
Some of the GOP moderates who had pushed for offsets later expressed their opposition to cutting domestic programs to pay for additional defense spending. "I have tremendous problems with our failure to realize there's waste, fraud and abuse in defense," said Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
Democrats reacted more strongly. "Again, they're looking for confrontation on an issue where we ought to be looking for cooperation," said David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the Appropriations Committee's ranking Democrat.
Even Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, a leader of conservative Democrats and an outspoken proponent of fiscal responsibility, was unsure about the necessity for finding offsets. "It's going to be tough," he said.
"This would require unacceptable reductions in important domestic programs, potentially resulting in deadlock," said Linda Ricci, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. "It will clearly make reaching bipartisan agreement far more difficult."
It is also likely to pit House GOP appropriators against their Senate brethren. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the supplemental bill without offsets on the same day House leaders decided to include them.
"I think it's too late in the year, and there's no way to do it," Senate Budget Chairman Domenici said of looking for offsets.
If another showdown with Clinton develops over disaster relief, House Republicans are counting on several significant differences from last year's battle. Among them: This fight would be waged over fiscal responsibility, not unrelated legislative riders; Clinton may have less credibility with the public than he had a year ago, and the need for disaster relief and defense funds may be less urgent than it was for last year's flood relief legislation.
"I don't think the lesson from last year is, don't pay for anything" to offset the costs of disaster relief, said Jim Nussle, R-Iowa. "I think the lesson is, plan ahead."
But House GOP leaders appeared to be taking an incremental approach to moving the first supplemental spending bill, which could be marked up in the House Appropriations Committee March 24 and considered by the full House the following week.
Whatever obstacles face the first supplemental spending bill, the challenges are greater for the subsequent measure.
Clinton's requests for U.N. arrearages ($921 million) and the IMF ($17.9 billion) are still linked to efforts by abortion opponents to attach a provision to block U.S. aid to overseas family planning groups that lobby foreign governments on abortion.
In his March 14 radio address, Clinton indicated that he might veto legislation containing the abortion language. "Congress shouldn't demand ransom to maintain America's world leadership and meet America's responsibility to our own national security," he said.
However, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., a leading abortion opponent, said House GOP leaders are committed to attaching the abortion language to any legislation on IMF funding or the U.N. arrearages.
Smith said he would not back down from his ongoing struggle with the administration. "If they want an all-out brawl on everything, I'm willing to go day and night on this," he said.
Livingston had hinted earlier this year that he was on the verge of retiring from Congress. But on Feb. 19, he announced that he would run for an 11th full term. He has since stepped up plans to run for Speaker. (Weekly Report, p. 431)
Livingston's efforts have continued despite a March 13 letter from Gingrich to House Republicans, stating his intention to serve as Speaker until January 2003. Nor was Livingston slowed by another March 13 letter from 14 committee chairmen suggesting that leadership struggles among Republicans could "hurt our chances to retain our majority in the 106th Congress."
Livingston said he had already accumulated more than 80 commitments. One person familiar with Livingston's thinking defended his campaign by saying, "This effort is not affecting the way the House works."
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