Lawmakers aligning to bust budget caps

Several House and Senate Republican aides Friday gave their tacit assent to President Clinton's expected decision to surpass a spending cap established by the 1997 Balanced Budget Act-an action that would give political cover to congressional Republicans should they choose to follow suit.

But aides also are reserving judgment on Clinton's fiscal 2001 spending priorities and are insisting the administration not spend the Social Security surplus and limit new spending requests.

"They're moving our way by making Social Security off limits," said a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, referring to administration pledges not to spend funds derived from Social Security revenues. She added: "[Office of Management and Budget Director] Lew admits it's going to keep them from spending more money. That's a huge improvement over where they were last year." A spokesman for House Speaker Hastert said, "I think we're fixated on Social Security right now."

Added a Senate GOP staffer: "It was unrealistic that we would actually stick to the cap. If you raise the cap, you actually get some discipline and some integrity." The aide said that by the administration acting first on the issue, "I think this sort of gives us a little more cover to do it" ourselves. But a House Budget Committee aide noted that, "It's the 1997 budget agreement-it's still the law," and said it was important to reserve judgment until Clinton submits his package of spending priorities in February. "What we need to do is find a new way to restrain spending in an era of surpluses," said the aide. Added an aide to a House conservative: "Is [Clinton] raising the caps because he wants to have an honest dialogue? Or is he doing it because he wants to have new spending?"

Republicans are watching closely to see what, if any, constraints the administration observes in lieu of a cap-such as limiting government spending increases to inflation or freezing spending at last year's level. "These caps were broken last year-[although] not technically," said the conservative aide. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., Thursday, Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., estimated that the federal budget surplus for the current fiscal year would surpass $160 billion, including a $10 billion to 20 billion non-Social Security surplus.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart Friday declined to confirm or deny reports the administration would propose breaching the caps. But sources confirmed the story, and the White House is likely to propose new statutory limits on spending.

"The president believes in tough budget rules that Congress takes seriously," Lockhart said Friday when asked how Clinton viewed the strategy of putting legal caps on spending. Lockhart accused the GOP of making a "mockery" of the existing caps.

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