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Washington Journal: Congress Misses Budget Deadline

Washington, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Despite an imminent adjournment date and looming elections, the U.S. Congress has missed the deadline for passing all of the legislation necessary to provide the federal government with a budget for the new financial year that started today.

As of Wednesday, the congress had approved only four of the 13 measures, called appropriations bills, that make up the federal government budget.

However, the lack of a completed budget will not cause any immediate problems for Washington. The congress approved a resolution to continue funding government operations until one week from tomorrow. President Bill Clinton signed the resolution last week, in the process sharply criticizing the congress. Clinton charged that some legislators were playing partisan politics at the expense of the public interest.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are controlled by the Republican Party. Clinton is a Democrat. Republican congressional leaders dismissed the president's criticism, saying they were doing the work they were elected to do.

The U.S. Constitution gives congress the sole power to set annual spending levels, but settling on a final figure for the government is a complicated process. It begins each January when the president sends a request to congress for money to finance all government operations.

Each chamber then sets to work drafting its own budget. Sometimes the spending levels are just what the president asked for. More often, however, there are fierce battles between the White House and the congress over spending priorities.

The budget is divided into 13 appropriations bills that provide money for cabinet departments, independent agencies and other programs. For example, the individual bills include legislation for the Agriculture Department, the Energy Department, the Interior Department and the Defense Department.

Another bill provides funds for the State, the Commerce and the Justice Departments, the federal judiciary and some independent programs, such as international radio and television broadcasting. There is also a separate measure that funds foreign operations and includes financial aid for foreign countries.

The House and the Senate have passed foreign aid legislation, but the chambers have not yet agreed on a final budget figure. Once each chamber passes spending legislation, the differences in the two measures have to be resolved by a committee of House and Senate members. Once that committee agrees on a final version, it is sent back to each chamber for one more vote before the measure is sent to the president for enactment. The White House has asked for about $12.5 billion for foreign aid.

At mid-week, the congress had approved final spending legislation for the Energy Department, the legislative branch -- which includes funds for congressional activities -- military construction, and the Defense Department. The defense bill is a $250.5 billion appropriation that accounts for about 15 percent of federal spending.

Congressional leaders say they may be able to finish work on two more bills -- one for agriculture and the other for the Treasury and Postal services, by the end of this week.

If congress cannot finish all 13 bills by its target adjournment date of October 9, it's likely that the House and Senate will agree on one so-called "catch-all" spending bill that would finance the government for the next 12 months, but at about the same level as this year.

Congress wants to adjourn early this year so that members may concentrate on election campaigns. The election is scheduled for November 3, and all 435 seats in the House and 34 of the 100 Senate seats are up for election.