Senate OKs $1.83 trillion budget bearing huge surpluses

WASHINGTON - Republicans pushed a $1.83 trillion budget for 2001 through the Senate on Friday, setting an election-year collision course with President Clinton over taxes and spending even as it maps a stunning string of surpluses.

The measure was approved after four days of debate on a mostly party-line 51-45 vote, putting the GOP on track to move a final House-Senate compromise through Congress next week.

The budget, which does not need Clinton's signature, sets broad tax and spending targets but leaves details for later legislation. It is those bills that will become political battlegrounds as the two parties draw contrasts over school spending, cutting married couples' taxes and dozens of other issues.

''We think this is not the time to grow government,'' said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M, as Republicans batted down yet another Democratic effort to reshape the spending plan.

Soon after passage, Clinton branded the budget an ''empty political document'' and called on lawmakers to work with him on a better one.

''This new Republican budget combines bad fiscal policy and a flawed economic strategy,'' he said in a written statement. ''It undermines our efforts to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, makes it harder to pay off the debt and rests on dramatic cuts in education, law enforcement, the environment and efforts to promote peace and national security.''

In one noteworthy Democratic success Friday, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the Senate voted 51-49 Friday to strip $2.7 billion out of the GOP's planned five-year, $150 billion tax cut and use the money to increase spending for Pell college grants for low-income students.

''This bipartisan decision to put access to college ahead of tax cuts for the wealthy is the right thing to do,'' Kennedy said afterward.

Joining the Senate's 45 Democrats on that vote were GOP Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, James Jeffords of Vermont, John McCain of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

That vote and several others signaled that as the budget is translated into real dollars later this year, members of both parties will be hard-pressed to resist the temptation of spending more money. In a long day of votes Friday, for example, the Senate signaled its desire to boost spending for biomedical research, victims of Hurricane Floyd, veterans and law enforcement.

''It may be kabuki, but it's all we've got,'' said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., using a reference to stylized Japanese theater to illustrate the symbolic nature of those votes.

The passage of next year's budget leaves unresolved the billions of dollars Clinton and many lawmakers want to provide right away for U.S. peacekeeping in Kosovo, drug-fighting in Colombia and rebuilding from Floyd. Work on spending bills actually to provide that money is likely to begin this month or next.

In perhaps the budget's most dramatic feature, Congress would use projected Social Security surpluses to pay down $1 trillion worth of the $3.6 trillion publicly held debt over the next five years. Clinton would do the same thing, plus add several billion more from surpluses from the rest of the budget.

If achieved, which seems plausible, debt reduction of that magnitude could gird the economy by pushing interest rates downward. Lawmakers would have accomplished a feat seen as fantasy in the not too distant days of federal deficits.

''The remarkable thing is how they're stumbling into correct fiscal policy,'' said Stanley Collender, who monitors the budget for the consulting firm Fleishman-Hillard. ''Because of a lack of consensus, stalemate, and who knows what other factors, they are getting to where a lot of economists say they should be, which is if you have a surplus, pay down the debt.''

The national debt totals $5.7 trillion, of which the government owes $3.6 trillion to the public and $2.1 trillion to the Social Security and other federal trust funds.

The GOP spending plan would set aside $311 billion for defense spending next year, $5 billion more than Clinton's proposal. Domestic programs would get $290 billion, about $30 billion less than the president wants.

The rest of the budget covers automatically paid benefits like Social Security plus interest payments on the national debt.

Republicans set aside up to $40 billion for setting up a Medicare prescription drug benefit, which Clinton has proposed and GOP leaders say they also favor. But their budget does not require the new program or propose specifics.

On the budget's final passage, Chafee and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, joined 43 Democrats in voting ''no.'' McCain and Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Utah; Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., did not vote.


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