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VERY MODEST PROPOSALS

12:00 AM, Sep 16, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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WHAT A DIFFERENCE 12 months makes. A year ago, congressional Republicans were giddy over the prospects of passing $ 270 billion in Medicare savings, approving a budget that would come into balance by the year 2002, and revolutionizing the way Washington does business. Newt Gingrich's insurgents boasted of being on "permanent offense."


We know what happened next, and the GOP has been on defense ever since. As a result, the party's aspirations for the remaining few weeks of the 104th Congress are modest. Indeed, congressional Republicans seek to do little more than what the Constitution requires of them: appropriate the money needed for the coming fiscal year. That means passing spending bills and hoping the president signs them -- then leaving Washington and plunging into what is really on their minds, their reelection campaigns. In the words of one GOP sage, "We want to get done and get out."


That's not so easy. At a September 4 press conference, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Richard Gephardt indicated they'll be making life difficult for their Republican colleagues over the next few weeks. Daschle blasted Bob Dole's tax-cut proposal and charged that " extremism is alive and well in the Republican caucus." He then made a solemn statement about the need to complete the appropriations bills, but noted this wouldn't be possible if there were "deep cuts" in spending on education and environmental protection. Just what qualifies as a "deep cut" remains unclear, but the statement is a harbinger of Democratic obstructionism. I asked Gephardt what he thought the chances were of the government running out of money again, and he replied: "It could happen. We're in the same condition as last year. I'm fearful of another shutdown." Daschle nodded.


This preference for confrontation over compromise doesn't bode well for congressional Republicans, still spooked by the political damage they suffered from last winter's government shutdowns. House majority leader Dick Armey pledges that "the House and Senate will do everything in their power to avoid" another such experience. But complicating matters is that only one of the 13 appropriations bills has been signed into law, and another five have yet to pass the Senate.


Republicans would like nothing more than to send all the remaining appropriations bills to the president and have him sign them. But no one believes they'll complete their work that quickly, much less get cooperation from the White House. More likely, Republicans will send Clinton a temporary measure funding the government into next year. That's what they did last year, though the strategy stalled when Clinton vetoed the spending measures, closing the government.


As Armey indicated, this is not something congressional Republicans want to repeat. "We have every intention of passing appropriations bills the White House will find satisfactory," explains the speaker's press secretary, Tony Blankley. Still, this strategy may fail. Senate majority leader Trent Lott noted that Democrats "may like the idea of a government shutdown because last time Bill Clinton shut it down, he blamed it on the Congress, and they got away with it."


For all of the political wounds Republicans suffered during the last year's budget combat, they did win the ideological war. They forced Clinton and congressional Democrats to commit to a balanced budget by the year 2002, and they have lopped off $ 53 billion in non-defense discretionary spending since taking control of Congress.


Those victories carry over to this year's budget deliberations. House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston promises, "We're not going to cave in," but as Steve Moore of the Cato Institute points out, the balanced budget agreement makes it difficult for Republicans to sell their souls or for Democrats to demand huge spending increases. "Everything's on a pretty tight leash right now," insists Moore, noting that while the GOP's 1997 budget is not as fiscally conservative as last year's, it's still pretty good: "We should do better, but we've certainly done worse."