By ALAN FRAM
WASHINGTON – President Clinton and congressional leaders agreed today to the outlines of a budget agreement, White House officials said, boosting the possibility that the lame-duck 106th Congress could adjourn by week’s end.
“We believe we have an agreement on a framework on health and education spending,” White House spokesman Elliot Diringer said after an Oval Office meeting between Clinton and House and Senate leaders that lasted more than one hour.
“I think we have the parameters” of a compromise top-line figure for spending, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said after the third meeting in eight days between Clinton and the leaders.
Neither Hastert nor Diringer mentioned a specific number. Hastert said he wanted to discuss the budget with rank-and-file GOP lawmakers on Tuesday.
The partisan dispute over school and health spending, immigration and other issues has kept Congress and Clinton bickering over four unfinished spending bills well past the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2001.
The battle has also ended up lasting close to the dates when many of the participants will lose their jobs. The new 107th Congress begins on Jan. 3, and Clinton leaves office on Jan. 20.
The two sides still have to agree to details, but Diringer said Clinton and the congressional leaders hope to finish that process by the end of the week.
“That is my plan,” Hastert told reporters.
The dispute concerns a $350 billion measure financing education, health and labor programs. While about two-thirds of it pays for automatic benefits like Medicaid, the two sides tentatively agreed last month to include $114 billion – a record $18 billion increase over last year – for other programs for schools, health and labor.
In the face of GOP objections that that was too expensive, Clinton in recent days has offered to pare that spending to as low as roughly $109 billion. Republicans want that figure lowered a bit.
To help bridge their differences, the two sides have discussed paying for some of the extra spending Clinton wants with an across-the-board cut in many other programs. Depending on how many programs the cut would affect, such a reduction would likely be in the low single-digit percentages – or even less.
Hastert said “there’s a possibility” that a final pact will include such a reduction.
In their discussions, Democrats have wanted the reduction to be applied to all federal spending except for automatically paid benefits like Social Security. Republicans have wanted to also exempt defense from the reductions.
The two sides are seeking a way to finally complete work on four spending bills that were due when fiscal 2001 began on Oct. 1.
Today’s White House meeting came just hours before the president’s scheduled departure for Ireland.
Some House conservatives led by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, have wanted to hold out until after Clinton leaves office on Jan. 20 in hopes that Republican George W. Bush would succeed him as president and hold down spending.
But most GOP leaders, including Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., have said they prefer striking a deal now so Bush would not be forced to deal with the budget fight shortly after taking office.
DeLay, who did not attend today’s White House session, said he supports using across-the-board cuts if it would hold spending down sufficiently.
“But I don’t support defense cuts,” he said.
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