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Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Crunch Time

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

A lame-duck presidency is like Joe Six Pack: a few ripples still defining the triceps but little more than flab showing in the gut. As the Clinton Administration nears the end of its tenure, the big question in Washington is whether this president, who only a year ago suffered the ignominy of impeachment, will break the conventional mold.

Intelligence sources in both parties think he will. Democrats, who loyally stood by him last year, see his staying power as ironic. Republicans, who gunned him down, view it as insulting. But privately, they all acknowledge that the White House is a master performer in the political arena.

What will the presidential scorecard look like when crunch time comes next fall? In the loss column: the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Kyoto (global warming) Protocols. In the win column: the federal budget. Here's why.

For every member of Congress, getting out of town early to campaign for reelection is highest on the list of priorities. That means precious little time for legislation.

In the case of treaties, Congress holds all the cards. The Senate can simply refuse to take them up, and all the president can do is sputter.

In the case of the budget, the White House has all the trumps. If the president doesn't like what Congress sends down Pennsylvania Avenue, he can send it back promptly with a veto. With insufficient votes for an override, Republican leaders will have four choices: shut the government down, strike a deal or pass a Continuing Resolution.

Shutting the government was a losing strategy the last time it was tried, and it still is. Passing a Continuing Resolution, which would allow the next president to call the shots, is a "no go" for this president. The only option is to strike a deal. And, as the past two years have demonstrated, when deal-making time comes, this White House wins.

For the Republicans, getting through the final negotiations without humiliation will be difficult. But getting from June to October without committing political suicide will be their biggest challenge.

As they enter the appropriations arena, the Republican leadership has left itself little wiggle room. In February, President Clinton proposed a discretionary budget amounting to $622 billion. The Budget Resolution that made it through both houses of Congress puts the spending at just over $600 billion.

In addition, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), at the prodding of Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) nixed the presidential request for Fiscal Year 2000 supplemental spending for foreign and domestic emergencies. In fairness to the GOP leadership, it should be noted that by the time the request was about to reach the Senate floor, the $5 billion or so request from the White House reportedly had grown to more than $20 billion.

Still the Senate action, or, more properly, the lack thereof, leaves Congress with a gaping $27 billion dollar hole to repair. For civilian programs, the hole is a chasm, since Congress added more than $10 billion to the presidential request for defense spending.

For science this means a shortfall of at least $100 million in DOE research accounts, compared to present spending. And in NSF accounts, it could mean even more.

Will these numbers stick after all the dust settles? Probably not, but it will be a cliff hanger. The only certainty is that Arlen Spector (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) will hold sway in the Senate, and John Porter (R-IL) will do the same in the House, as they successfully nudge their colleagues to deliver another $2-billion increase for NIH.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette