Reagan Ready to Sign Bill To Balance Budget, Raise Debt Limit
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Barely two hours before a midnight deadline, the House gave final congressional approval Wednesday to watershed legislation raising the national debt limit to more than $2 trillion and setting up a plan to end federal budget deficits by fiscal 1991.
By a 271-154 vote, the House went along with the Senate in approving the package, sending it to the White House for President Reagan’s expected signature.
Supporters said the compromise budget plan, which the Senate sent to the House on a bipartisan 61-31 vote, was the last chance to impose the discipline Congress needs to tame government red ink. Opponents said it was a cowardly ″march of folly″ that would rob Congress of constitutional powers, destroy federal programs, lead to higher taxes and hurt the economy.
In the Senate, there were 22 Democrats and 39 Republicans joining to vote in favor of the measure while 22 Democrats and nine Republicans opposed it.
Again and again, in both chambers, there were arguments that the bill was flawed but that there was no other way to confront deficits.
″This process is going to hurt, going to hurt us all,″ said Rep. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the assistant Republican leader. ″But we have no choice but to vote a reluctant ’yes.‴
And there were arguments that the legislation was a mistake of historic proportions.
″This will be a night of shame, a night of infamy,″ said Rep. James Scheuer, D-N.Y.
″We’ve made history of some kind and we’ll see how it works next year,″ said Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan.
Senate Democratic Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia said the budget plan was a ″cup of poison″ that the president and Congress would regret.
The Senate spent about 10 hours, during which there were two lopsided procedural votes, going over the plan whose passage never was in doubt.
The White House said President Reagan would sign the measure ″first thing in the morning″ on Thursday.
″With his assurance, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve will be able to continue normal financial operations without interruption,″ said White House spokeswoman Denny Brisley in a statement late Wednesday.
The urgently needed increase in the debt limit - the government’s borrowing authority - to $2.079 trillion ended months of fiscal turmoil for the credit- starved government, which had resorted to a series of bookkeeping tricks to stay solvent. Treasury Department officials said the government would have been in default without action by midnight.
Less clear was the impact of the balanced-budget plan, which revises the congressional budget process and requires automatic spending cuts if Congress and the administration fail to meet a series of statutory ceilings on annual budget deficits aimed at reducing red ink from the current $200 billion to zero by fiscal 1991.
Congressional negotiators, who wrapped up final details of the budget plan Tuesday night, settled on up to $11.7 billion in automatic cuts for early next year to begin the declining path for deficits. The cuts will be equally distributed between domestic and military spending programs.
To answer administration concerns, the negotiators agreed to give the Pentagon some flexibility in distributing its cuts among different military accounts during the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
The measure also gives the president the option of protecting the uniformed services from pay cuts, so long as the cost is covered by taking money evenly from other military accounts.
Before approving the measure, the Senate spent hours rehashing the months of argument that have surrounded the budget plan originally sponsored by Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas; Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.
Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., chairman of the Finance Committee, said, ″If this bill does not work ... we will lose our last significant opportunity to deal with the deficit.″
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Budget Committee, said the drastic measure was necessary to force action to curb deficits.
″We have political gridlock at this point″ and the current political process will invite continued gridlock, Domenici said.
The idea is that the threat of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts will force Congress and the White House to reach a consensus on how to pare deficits.
Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., belittled that idea saying: ″We’re either going to have to dream that impossible dream of agreement with the president or we’re going to have that automatic thing take over.″
Johnston also said he doubted White House officials understood the implications of the measure.
″I don’t think they have any idea what’ll happen to them under this,″ he said. Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., said the budget plan was a ″march of folly″ that ″deprives us of the power of choice and substitutes a statutory auto-pilot for the presidential and congressional leadership we sorely need.″
″The vote for Gramm-Rudman may be the easy vote, but it is not the courageous vote,″ Hart said.
Under the budget plan, Reagan will have to send Congress a budget by next Feb. 5 that projects a deficit of no more than $144 billion for the 1987 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 1986. The president has said he wants no tax increases but wants to increase military spending by 3 percent after accounting for inflation.
But supporters and opponents alike of the budget plan have said it will be all but impossible politically to meet that deficit target with domestic spending cuts alone. Thus, Reagant might have to reconsider his opposition to tax increases. Or, the Gramm-Rudman plan might be scrapped.
House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., D-Mass., questioned how long the budget plan would last. ″Will it be a lasting monument?″ the speaker asked. ″No,″ he answered.