The Clinton administration Monday evening asked GOP appropriators to wrap six FY97 appropriations bills into an FY97 omnibus spending measure that boosts domestic spending by $6.5 billion beyond the amount Republicans planned to spend on key administration initiatives. And to help pay for the new spending, the administration asked that defense spending be placed on the table for possible cuts.
Heading into a Capitol Hill meeting with Senate Appropriations Chairman Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., House Appropriations Chairman Robert Livingston, R-La., and the Appropriations committees' Democratic ranking members, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said, "I think it's important to make this package work that defense be part of the package under consideration." Following the meeting, Panetta reiterated that defense "needs to be part of the mix." House-Senate conferees last week agreed to an FY97 Defense appropriations conference report that is $10 billion more than the administration's request.
Panetta said the administration wants to begin negotiations on six FY97 appropriations bills. He said staff members from the administration and Appropriations committees will begin work today on possible spending targets and offsets. With FY97 starting on Oct. 1, President Clinton so far has signed just two of the appropriations measures, the FY97 Agriculture and District of Columbia appropriations bills, and Congress also has sent him conference reports on the FY97 Legislative Branch and Military Construction appropriations bills. The omnibus bill under discussion would last through all of FY97.
Livingston said the administration wants the FY97 Labor-HHS, Defense, Commerce-Justice-State, Interior, Treasury-Postal and Foreign Operations appropriations bills wrapped into one bill, although he said he would like to send some of those bills to the White House separately.
Hatfield conceded six of the bills are having "problems of varying degrees."
For example, the Labor-HHS appropriations measure has not reached the Senate floor. And Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., pulled the Treasury-Postal appropriations bill from the Senate floor late last week, contending Democrats had proposed too many amendments.
Livingston said "significant differences ... separate us," but added he believes work on the omnibus spending bill can be completed in two weeks to allow Congress to go home for the year.
For his part, House Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., contended, "I hope the optimism is justified."
Livingston said he would have to discuss with House Republican leaders whether they want to pass the Defense appropriations measure and send it Clinton, who may veto it.
Livingston has not yet filed the Defense appropriations conference agreement in the House, although it is on the official House schedule for consideration this week. He said if the Defense bill could help contribute to a possible solution to a spending impasse, he would delay filing it, adding, "I frankly can't say what I'm willing to concede."
Livingston said he believes negotiators can come up with offsets to pay for the additional spending requested by the administration, but added that Republicans may not be prepared to go along with all of the new spending. "But I think a compromise is doable," he said. Livingston said it was clear education spending is the administration's top priority.
Unlike last year, the negotiators may not be bogged down over legislative riders that have been attached the spending bills.
Panetta quipped, "We would like to minimize the riders, except for the ones we like."
He said the administration likes riders that would provide parity for mental health coverage in health insurance plans and one that would require health insurance companies to pay for 48 hours of hospital care for newly delivered babies and their mothers, as well as some other legislative provisions.
As the high-stakes negotiations start, Panetta and the appropriators seemed to be in a good mood. Livingston said he wanted to wrap up the deal by "5 p.m. tomorrow." And Panetta, who earlier this year repeatedly went to the same room on the Senate side of the Capitol to negotiate an FY96 spending deal quipped, "This is all very familiar."