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U.S.: Clinton Faces Tough Budget Fight

U.S. President Bill Clinton has proposed his last annual government budget. As expected, his political opponents in the Republican Party, who control Congress, promise that they will not enact the budget unless it is radically changed. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully looks at what has become an annual struggle in Washington.

Washington, 8 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton's last annual government budget proposal is drawing harsh, even contemptuous criticism from his Republican Party opponents in Congress.

Any government budget must be approved by Congress. The fighting between the White House and Capitol Hill over spending priorities has become a annual ritual since Republicans won control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the 1994 general election.

Most Republicans say Clinton, a Democrat, believes in what they call "big government" spending tax revenues on programs to solve the country's social ills.

Yesterday, Clinton announced his proposed budget for the 2001 fiscal year. He would take advantage of America's budget surplus by increasing spending on health care, education and other social programs. And he would pay off the debt owed to those who hold government bonds by 2013.

He also would give $810 million in aid to the nations of the former Soviet Union, plus $610 million for assistant to the countries in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkans.

Clinton even proposed $351 billion in tax reductions aimed at low- and moderate-income.

The U.S. Pentagon, meanwhile, would spend $277.5 billion during the fiscal year. The spending would include a 3.7 percent pay increase of service members, improvements in their health-care benefits, and an increase of $5 billion in housing subsidies for defense personnel not living on military bases.

Clinton also wants $1.9 billion for a national missile defense system, which the Russian government opposes. An additional $2.6 billion is proposed for other U.S. missile programs. The president also would spend $2.2 billion next year for peacekeeping missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

The president says the financial good fortune in the U.S. is caused not only by increased tax revenues. He cites the government's determination to spend wisely. When he presented his proposal, Clinton said this determination has had a very noticeable impact on the lives of Americans.

"Fiscal discipline matters to every single American. When the deficits disappear, interest rates fall. More Americans can then buy homes, retire student loans, start new businesses, create jobs and wealth. Indeed, our economists have estimated that lower interest rates in the last seven years have already saved the average American about $2,000 a year in home-mortgage payments and $200 a year in college loans and car payments. Our budget ensures that the benefits of that reduction will continue."

Clinton said his budget advances what he calls the "great goals" of his two four-year terms in office: improved education, more opportunities for working parents, increased health-care assistance to all Americans, particularly the elderly; more financial assistance for the poor and for communities wracked by poverty.

"This budget takes the right steps toward those goals. I hope it will be well received in Congress and by the American people."

The American people have yet to speak. But Clinton's Republican opponents in Congress were quick to denounce the plan. They say Clinton's tax cuts were far smaller than their own proposals. And they noted that he counters his proposed tax reductions with tax increases totaling $181 billion.

Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio) is chairman of the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives, which has great influence on how federal tax revenues are spent. He says Clinton's budget proposal is a "fantasy," in his words, and that the president has no expectation that it will be passed by Congress.

Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which also decides how the federal government's money is spent. He says the budget is a ploy to help members of the Democratic Party, Clinton's party, and to help Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, who is campaigning to be elected president in November.

"This is an election-year budget of the highest order. It's not really intended to be passed [by Congress]. It's intended to offer an opportunity for Democrats to get elected using parts of this budget, and perhaps for Al Gore to use it in his election campaign."

These sentiments are shared by some independent analysts. James Thurber is a professor of government at the American University in Washington.

"It is definitely a political document. All budgets are political documents. This one just won't see the light of day, in my opinion, on most items."

The president's budget proposal shows that Clinton is interested in protecting his legacy. He does not want future historians to regard him only as the second U.S. president ever to be impeached.

But now Clinton must face a Congress that also is looking to the future -- the general election in November. The Republicans are hoping to increase their narrow majority in Congress, and they will work to make the 2001 budget reflect their views.

But the Republicans must be careful. In 1995, both they and Clinton refused to give in on a budget by the October 1 deadline, and much of the government was shut down.

The Republicans were blamed for that political disaster. Now they must decide whether to risk a similar confrontation -- just a month before the election.