Is Wimping Out the Way to Go?

The Republican majority in Congress has figured out how to avoid another budget battle with President Clinton – surrender, and give the president the additional spending he wants.

The Republicans are so anxious to avoid a government shutdown and to get back out to their districts to campaign that they are ready to give the president all or most of an extra $6.5 billion he wants restored to the federal budget for fiscal year 1997, which starts next Tuesday.

Funding of the federal government involves 13 different appropriations bills. Four have been signed by the president and two others await his signature, but the others are still on Capitol Hill. Without signed legislation, or else a "continuing resolution" that temporarily extends spending authority at some levels, parts of the federal government would shut down on that date, just five weeks before the election. The GOP has the votes to approve spending at whatever level it wants, but the president can veto it if he doesn't like it, and there aren't enough votes to override the veto.

Last year, the president's budget vetoes shut down the government twice – but each time Clinton was able to paint the Republicans as the culprits. They've never made a full recovery from the resulting damage in the polls.

So this year, the Republicans could be viewed as wimping out, sacrificing principle on the altar of getting reelected. On the other hand, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said, "I don't know that we have a whole lot of leverage." So his party is taking what it has gained thus far in the 104th Congress and giving in to Clinton, reasoning that he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.

There were real gains in the war against bigger government. Since the Republicans took over in 1995, they have indeed held down spending increases to about half the average rate of the past 10 years. They have rescinded billions of dollars in previously authorized spending, and actually eliminated some government agencies.

It is some of this progress that is being sacrificed on the altar of reelection. For example, the get-out-of-town increases will bring spending for the Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services right back to where it was when the Republicans came to town in January of 1995.

For the moment the focus is on the mechanics of keeping the government fully funded after the first of October. Some of the 13 appropriations bills aren't going to be law by then. The remaining ones could be taken care of permanently in one catchall bill – an omnibus appropriations bill – which would do away with the need for a continuing resolution.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle says he won't stand for that. Obviously attracted by the possibility that Republicans can both be kept from campaigning and be painted as obstructionists if negotiations on spending can be dragged out through the month of October, Daschle has been doing all the dragging he can. "We'll stay here and work on this for several weeks, and even a month or so if we have to," he said last week.

That's why the Republican leadership is ready to give Clinton most of what he wants. It's easy to rationalize that it's better to do everything possible to get Republican majorities returned to both houses of Congress, even if they do have to surrender to Clinton now, than to have the Democrats back in control at the Capitol.

Now the Republicans are talking about more rescissions next year, suggesting that if they hold majorities they will take back the spending authority they're about to give the president. But why do I have the uneasy feeling that their heart isn't in it, and that after a narrow election victory in November, the smaller government theme will join the lower taxes theme as two powerful ideas that swept the Republicans into power in 1994, only to be abandoned in 1996.