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Inside the Beltway

Freshman House Republicans Muscle Legislation to a Crawl

By Michael S. Lubell

When Congress returned from its summer recess shortly after Labor Day, the Republican leaders knew that they had a full plate before them. What they didn't know was how indigestible its contents would turn out to be. Working against the October 1 deadline for the new fiscal year, they could barely achieve enough consensus to send two of the thirteen appropriations bills to President Clinton's desk for his consideration. He signed the one for military construction, but vetoed the other for legislative branch spending.

To avoid shutting down the federal government, all parties in the budget debate were forced to agree to a Continuing Resolution. For six weeks, it allowed all agencies to spend money at a level that was 5 percent below the lowest figure contained in either the House or Senate appropriations bill or the actual spending for FY 1995. But in some instances the Senate or House appropriations bills had zeroed out activities of the federal government, such as the Advanced Technology Program administered by NIST. To deal with these, the Continuing Resolution provided for spending at a level 10 percent below the FY 1995 figure.

It took all of Speaker Newt Gingrich's considerable leadership skills to sell his House Republican freshmen on the temporary spending plan. But their public objections to the deal worked out with the White House made it abundantly clear to even the most casual of observers that these missionaries were not about to forego their November 1994 calling in the ensuing budget debate.

With only one week remaining before the Continuing Resolution was due to expire, the contentiousness in the House had so tied up the legislative process that only one more appropriations bill had been sent to the White House. And even that one, which funds the Agriculture Department and which the President signed on October 21, created a deep split among the House Republicans, pitting the more seasoned Appropriations Committee leadership against the most hawkish of the GOP freshmen. Without Speaker Gingrich's direct intervention, that bill, too, might have died on the House floor.

Where does this internecine battling leave the science budgets? Amidst all the bloodletting that accompanied the anti-government fervor during the summer legislative activity, basic research stood out as one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans of most stripes could come to a consensus on strong federal support, strong, at least, by comparison with other activities. Although there were some differences between the House and Senate spending plans, the National Science Foundation, for example, seemed headed for a cut of less than 1 percent from its FY 1995 level.

Within the Department of Energy, two research areas even made it into the plus column. The conference report on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, which was approved by both houses on Halloween, earned Basic Energy Sciences the title of big winner. The bill raised spending for BES to $782 million, an increase of slightly more than 10 percent. It also raised spending for high energy physics by almost 4 percent to $667 million.

Nuclear physics, however, fared less well. It received an 8 percent reduction to $304.5 million. And magnetic fusion, which unfortunately had its future spending tied to two new projects, ITER and TPX, suffered the largest hit of all. Budget cutters excised 30 percent of its FY 1995 base, despite last minute efforts by the Clinton Administration to establish a coherent set of priorities.

With the freshmen Republicans demanding that House leaders hew to their fiscal and social agenda in dealing with their more moderate Senate Republican counterparts, it is far from clear which appropriations bills will ultimately make their way onto the President's desk. And once they get there, it is far from clear which bills the President will find acceptable.

A series of Continuing Resolutions may avert the federal train wreck that some pundits inside the Beltway have forecast. But for many science activities that will be small solace, since the House Republican freshmen have vowed to make the stop-gap spending measures reflect deep cuts across the board. According to some sources on the Hill, those cuts could reach 20 or even 40 percent as the fiscal year progresses.

Bitter disputes over legislation to raise the debt limit and vitriolic debates over the mammoth Reconciliation Bill further dampen the possibilities of consensus building during the remaining year of the 104th Congress. The forecast: in spite of bipartisan support, many science activities may simply have to be put on ice until the 1996 elections.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin