With little fanfare, President Clinton signed a $520 billion budget on Wednesday. Lawmakers shipped the measure to the White House just before the 105th Congress slipped into history.
In its last major vote of 1998, the Senate approved the 4,000-page bill by 65-29, then sorted through a final stack of minor items and left town for the year. The House adjourned shortly afterward but still planned to pursue its inquiry into Clinton's possible impeachment after the Nov. 3 elections.
Clinton said of the big bill, "There's a lot of little things tucked away there that I wish weren't in that budget." But he added that "on balance, it honors our values and strengthens our country and looks to the future."
With the entire House and one-third of the Senate facing the voters in two weeks, lawmakers were eager to leave town.
Even so, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., had to defend the spending bill that he and other GOP leaders negotiated last week with White House officials. Conservatives protested that it was bloated and others said they had no idea what was in it.
"I'm deeply disappointed by the inability of our own Republican leadership to keep its promise to working Americans" to cut taxes and spending, Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., said on the Senate floor.
Noting that No. 2 Senate GOP leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma had also opposed the bill, Lott told a reporter, "I guess he thought there was too much money in there. I felt that way. But there's a lot of good in there, too."
A day after the House overwhelmingly approved the measure, Republicans voted for it by 33-20, with supporters citing its increased spending for defense and anti-drug efforts and its blocking of Clinton initiatives such as national student testing.
Democrats favored it by 32-9, happy over wins for schools and environmental programs. Yet as the full text of the legislation was finally widely distributed, another reason for its resounding support became clearer: Hundreds and hundreds of projects for lawmakers' districts.
Among them, Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, won $300,000 for the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio, which Regula's wife, Mary, helped found in 1995. There was $70 million for a rail project in Hudson and Bergen counties, N.J., home state of Senate Appropriations Committee member Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat.
There was $1.4 million to restore the one-time Plains, Ga., home of former President Carter, which is now a national historic site. And outgoing Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., received at least two honors. A federal rice research center in Stuttgart, Ark, was named after him, and a National Institutes of Health vaccine research laboratory in Bethesda, Md., was named after him and his wife, Betty.
Referring to the relatively few congressional leaders and White House officials who negotiated the deal, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who voted against the pacage, said, "There's so much here, even they don't know what's in it."
The bill covers nearly one-third of the federal budget for fiscal 1999, which began Oct. 1. Using various accounting maneuvers, lawmakers were able to cram even more spending into it than last year's balanced budget agreement was designed to accommodate.
First, they and Clinton designated $21 billion as emergency spending, which means it will be paid for out of expected federal surpluses. This includes aid for farmers, heightened security at U.S. embassies, keeping U.S. peacekeepers in Bosnia and other programs.
The lawmakers also avoided budget caps for this year by designating at least $8.4 billion of mostly education spending for fiscal 2000, according to preliminary Congressional Budget Office figures provided by Senate budget aides.
While lawmakers have long used this practice, the $8.4 billion is more than twice the $4 billion that budget writers last year designated for 1999.
An additional $2.8 billion was paid for by savings claimed from transactions involving the District of Columbia pension funds and broadcast spectrum sales.
Together, that adds up to more than $30 billion above the amount the budget deal set for this year, and critics are complaining.
"With the deficit gone and replaced by the surplus, the discipline has begun to break down," said Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Clinton also signed a $93 billion measure financing housing, veterans and environmental programs. It includes a rewrite of the nation's public housing laws to give local officials more power and entice more working poor families to move into housing projects.
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