Congress: The Bitter End

An appropriations season marked by bitter divisions ended Thursday night on a fitting note, as the House and Senate approved the Commerce-Justice-State spending bill amidst complaints over its census language and lingering ill will over language dropped Wednesday night from the Foreign Operations bill concerning international family planning aid, the United Nations, and the International Monetary Fund.

The House approved the conference report on the Commerce-Justice-State bill, the last of the 13 regular appropriations measures, by a vote of 282-110. The Senate earlier in the evening had "deemed" the conference report approved by unanimous consent.

Before adjourning and leaving town, Congress also passed one last continuing resolution for fiscal 1998, lasting through Nov. 26. The long lead time came at the request of the White House, to provide not only the usual four or five days it takes to get the paperwork from Capitol Hill down Pennsylvania Avenue, but also to give administration officials time to comb through the bills to see if they want to line item veto any of the provisions. President Clinton is, however, expected to sign the remaining bills.

Still, the adjournment resolution, which passed the House 205-193 and the Senate by voice vote, specifically includes language to block Clinton from a pocket veto of the defense authorization bill merely by not signing it during the recess. The adjournment resolution authorizes the clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate to receive messages from the president while Congress is gone in order to "preserve ... the constitutional prerogative of the House and Senate to reconsider vetoed measures."

Before reaching that point, though, members had to dispose of the Commerce-Justice-State bill, which was threatened not only by controversial census language, permitting the administration to continue with plans to use statistical sampling in the next census, and providing an expedited procedure by which Republicans can challenge sampling's constitutionality, but also by activities stemming from the wrapup of the Foreign Operations bill earlier Thursday.

Leaders finally sprung the Foreign Operations bill from the House Wednesday night, with anti-abortion members backing off of language to bar funding of international family planning organizations that use their own money to perform or promote abortion.

But the price of that deal involved striking from the bill two provisions the administration wanted, some $3.5 billion for a new IMF currency stabilization program and $936 million to pay back debts to the United Nations.

And Republicans made it clear the provisions will remain linked for the foreseeable future.

"The speaker told us 'I give you my word. They don't get a dime until there's some movement'" on the family planning issue, said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., leader of the effort to restore the family planning restrictions.

But while the Foreign Operations bill was approved by the Senate and sent to the president early Thursday afternoon, the ill will lingered on, with both sides accusing the other of subverting U.S. foreign policy to the desires of domestic interest groups on the abortion issue.

"I'm very disappointed in the White House decision to put domestic politics ahead of the national interest," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., at a Thursday news conference, paraphrasing a letter he sent to Clinton earlier in the day.

But House Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., said Republicans' decision to explicitly link two unrelated provisions to the family planning fight was "a negligent decision" that "does not punish Bill Clinton, it punishes the country."

Obey, however, was unsuccessful in his attempt to force modified versions of the IMF and U.N. language into the Commerce- Justice-State bill. His motion to recommit the conference report was rejected 216-171.

"You're kind of fighting the smell of jet fuel," said one Democratic appropriations aide, predicting earlier in the day that the move would fail.

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