As the Senate struggled in its efforts to complete work on the fiscal 1998 budget resolution Wednesday, the White House had to intervene to rescue the deal from melting down, as members who negotiated the arrangement managed to fend off inclusion of a children's health proposal that would have added more than $20 billion in additional spending as well as a 43 cents-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax.
Only after budget leaders appealed to the administration to keep its word by preserving the deal, and after high-level administration officials began making calls, was the amendment offered by Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Senate Labor and Human Resources ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., ultimately tabled on a 55-45 vote.
"If we'd had this vote at 11:30 this morning we'd have won going away," said a disappointed Hatch after the late afternoon vote. Both Hatch and Kennedy said the administration's lobbying clearly made the difference. "They just didn't have the guts to stand up for children," said Hatch.
Kennedy said he thought the administration was "mistaken in the judgment that this would have brought the bill down." That was clearly the fear among GOP budget leaders, who termed the measure variously a "killer amendment" and a "deal breaker." But budget leaders were also unhappy with the administration's efforts, since earlier in the day officials had sent signals they were supporting Hatch and Kennedy, and even told Kennedy that Vice President Gore would be available to cast a tie-breaking vote if needed.
White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry at his mid-afternoon briefing officially reversed course, saying that while "the president's sympathies are pretty clear on the thrust of the legislation ... [Hatch-Kennedy] can't clearly stand encumbering the balanced budget agreement that would otherwise go down the drain if this amendment passes." Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., termed the administration's late efforts to defeat the amendment "pretty weak."
In the meantime, debate on the floor grew heated, with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., at one point threatening the pull the entire budget agreement and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, R-S.D., essentially daring Lott to go ahead and make good on his threat.
One Republican aide said those on his side were as concerned about being forced to vote against increased health care for children as they were about the possibility of the budget deal being blown apart.
"This is a political amendment designed for 30-second ads that they'll come after Republicans on," the aide said.
Members did approve, 98-2, an amendment offered by Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., restating the agreement's $16 billion children's health initiative.
In the end, both sides managed to take some solace from the vote.
Kennedy and Hatch hailed the fact that eight Republicans voted with them, including three who were not already co-sponsors of the bill, while Nickles noted that eight Democrats, mostly from tobacco producing states or members of the Budget Committee, voted to table the amendment.
But Hatch and Kennedy made it clear this is not the last the Senate will hear of their proposal, even though not having the proposal covered in the budget resolution means they will likely need 60 votes in subsequent attempts.
"We have every intention of pursuing this at every opportunity," Kennedy told reporters after the vote.
An aide said later that not only would the proposal be back when budget reconciliation reaches the floor, but also "on any tax bill that comes over."
In other action as the Senate struggled to complete work on the budget resolution, an amendment offered by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, was tabled by 68-31. The proposal would have frozen non- defense discretionary spending for fiscal 1998-2002 at the levels requested by President Clinton in his final FY97 budget offer.
Gramm's amendment would have used the $76 billion in savings that would have produced to fully fund his capital gains tax cut and a $500 per child tax credit.