WASHINGTON - The House leadership was considering legislation yesterday that would firm up Democratic support for the budget package by locking in the House's funding cut for the Superconducting Super Collider as well as $10 billion worth of other appropriations cuts.
As the $496 billion deficit reduction plan neared a final vote in the House yesterday evening, Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., endorsed the idea of drafting a spending recission bill that would safeguard the House's decision last month to close out funding for the $11 billion Texas nuclear physics project.
Indirectly linked to the federal funding are $250 million of lease revenue bonds that Texas issued for the project in December 1991.
The bill would also seal into place and devote toward deficit reduction all other spending cuts voted by the House in debate on fiscal 1994 appropriation bills so far this year. Those cuts, which the Senate has not yet approved, would have the effect of reducing total discretionary spending to about $11 billion below the spending cap for 1994, Foley said.
President Clinton has voiced support for the Super Collider, but in recent days he has spoken favorably of the recission bill idea as he searches for votes among Democrats who want deeper cuts.
For his part, Foley said, "The recission approach might be helpful" in convincing undecided Democrats that a vote for the budget package would be a "first step" in attacking the deficit. "There will be opportunities to get further votes on spending cuts this year," he said.
Foley said that in a meeting on Wednesday with Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., there was also discussion of passing legislation to eliminate a number of tax breaks. Kerrey, whose vote for the budget could be crucial in a Senate vote expected today, is a strong supporter of greater fiscal austerity.
Foley rejected Kerrey's call, however, for a special session of Congress in September to focus on spending cuts.
"A special session has no particular purpose or benefit as long as the regular session presents the opportunity for cuts," he said.
In action on the budget bill yesterday, the House approved by 257 to 179 a set of procedures that will for the first time require the chamber to consider passing corrective legislation if the government's $767 billion of annual entitlement programs exceed targets established under the budget bill.
The new House rules complement an executive order signed by Clinton on Wednesday, which commits the President to proposing such corrective legislation. While the rules establish stiff new penalties if the House fails to exert control over entitlement spending, it is unclear what the effect will be since the Senate has approved no comparable provisions.
Talk of a bill to seal in the cutoff of Super Collider funds comes amid other troubling signs for the project.
For example, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., the collider's chief supporter in the Senate, announced that he will vote against Clinton's budget because its $190 billion in cuts in entitlement and discretionary programs is not enough. Johnston had previously voted against the Senate version of the plan.
As one of five of the Senate's 56 Democrats who have announced opposition to the budget plan, along with virtually all the Senate's 44 Republicans, Johnston could be critical to the outcome of the Senate vote. His announcement also potentially creates a strain with Clinton, who lately has been expressing only tepid support for the collider.
Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., in announcing his support for the budget plan yesterday, said that on Wednesday he urged the President to drop his support for the collider as one way of showing his determination to cut spending.
Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., said that one reason he would vote against the plan is continued stiff resistance to cutting such programs as the Superconducting Super Collider."
Lobbying for and against the collider has grown intense in recent weeks, prompting a charge from Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., that the project's contractors are waging an illegal lobbying campaign using taxpayers' money to try to save the project.
Pryor, who is chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs federal services subcommittee, on Tuesday requested an investigation by the General Accounting Office and the Energy Department's inspector general of various documents he uncovered that allegedly show that the contractors have been behind the pro-collider lobbying effort and have maintained detailed records of the voting records of each member of Congress on the collider.
Reports of such irregularities, as well as other management troubles at the project, prompted Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to announce in a hearing Wednesday that she has decided to strip the project's principal contractor, Universities Research Association, of its role in managing the project.
O'Leary said she hoped the action would increase the chances of collider funding passing the Senate next month. O'Leary also disputed findings by the General Accounting Office last month that the project is way behind schedule and above its budget.