Washington, 3 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Economic aid for Europe's former communist countries, reorganizing the U.S. State Department, and the cost to the United States of enlarging the NATO alliance are just a few of the issues awaiting the return of the 105th U.S. Congress this week.
The 100-member Senate reconvened Tuesday after its month-long summer recess. The 435-member House of Representatives is to go back to work today.
The biggest task facing both chambers of the legislature is passing the budget for the U.S. Government for the financial year beginning October First. The budget is actually 13 separate pieces of legislation called appropriations bills. Both branches of Congress must approve each bill. Differences between the spending measures passed by the House and by the Senate have to be erased and final budget bills have to be approved by both houses again before the budget bills go to the White House for President Bill Clinton's signature.
To date, the Congress has not completed final action on any of the measures. However, the House and Senate are expected to move quickly through the list of budget bills and finish before the October First deadline. Two years ago, a bitter spending dispute between the Congress, which is controlled by the Republican Party, and President Clinton, a Democrat, left many government agencies without funds to start the new fiscal year, and some government services were briefly interrupted. The White House and the Congress pledged to avoid such showdowns in the future and work on most of the budget is expected to progress smoothly in the days ahead.
There are some exceptions, however. And one of the biggest trouble spots is the legislation that funds all U.S. foreign assistance programs, including aid for the countries of the former Soviet Union and the nations of central and eastern Europe and the Baltic.
The foreign aid bill, as it is commonly referred to, is threatened by a seemingly intractable political dispute between majority Republicans and minority Democrats over abortion and international family planning.
When the House takes up the foreign aid bill this week, Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) plans to submit an amendment that would ban U.S. Government assistance for groups that use their own money to practice or advocate abortions in foreign countries.
President Clinton strongly opposes this provision. He has warned Congress that he will veto the foreign aid legislation if it includes the Smith amendment on abortion.
The Senate has completed action on its version of the foreign aid bill, and the Senate legislation does not include the ban on abortion funds.
There is also a big difference in the amount of money that the House and Senate propose to spend on foreign aid and other foreign operations.
President Clinton asked for $16.9 billion. The bill that passed the Senate would appropriate $16.8 billion. However, the version being considered by the House offers only $12.3 billion. The main reason for the difference is that the House refused to include $3.5 billion sought by Clinton for International Monetary Fund emergencies.
Congressman Smith's anti-abortion amendment is also holding up final action on legislation that would reorganize the U.S. State Department.
After two years of resisting efforts by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) to reduce the size of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, the Clinton Administration agreed on a compromise plan with the Senator last April. In June, the Senate passed Helm's reorganization bill which will merge the independent Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the U.S. Information Agency with the State Department.
The Agency for International Development (AID) survives as an independent institution, but the Helms' legislation requires that all U.S. foreign aid be funneled through the State Department instead of AID, which now administers those programs.
The version of the legislation passed by the House would make the head of AID subordinate to the Secretary of State, but would still permit AID to determine foreign aid priorities. That difference between the two bills has to be worked out by a joint committee of Senators and members of the House, called a conference committee.
The House version also contains Congressman Smith's anti-abortion amendment. The Senate bill does not. Clinton will veto the reorganization legislation if it contains that amendment, so the issue must be resolved. However, the reorganization bill does not face the October deadline because it is a separate piece of legislation and not part of any of the government budget bills for the new financial year.
The Congress is also expected to start talking about the enlargement of the NATO alliance and how much the U.S. will have to contribute to the cost of expansion.
There was majority support last year for the inclusion of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in NATO and for the eventual inclusion of Romania and Slovenia and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Now that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have been formally invited by NATO, the alliance treaty will have to be amended. The U.S. Constitution requires U.S. Senate approval of foreign treaties, and the Senate will have to pass ratification legislation before the U.S. accepts NATO treaty amendments. Debate on the ratification issue is not expected to begin until next year.
In the weeks and months ahead, both the House and Senate are likely to convene public hearings on how much an enlarged NATO will cost the United States. The House has already added an amendment to the Defense Department budget bill that would require Congressional approval for any U.S. expenditures linked to NATO expansion.