WASHINGTON - President Clinton yesterday promised more spending cuts amed at eliminating the deficit as he signed two executive orders designed to ensure that the budget package's $496 billion of tax increases and spending cuts reduce the deficit as planned.
"I want to go the extra mile to ensure this plan is different from the past," Clinton said as he signed the orders.
The President's actions were taken with an eye toward swaying the votes of congressional Democrats who have criticized the budget plan for failing to adequately control the government's $767 billion of annual entitlement spending, administration officials acknowledge.
The support of such Democrats, particularly in the Senate, will be critical if the plan is to pass in votes that are expected today and tomorrow.
Two of the wavering Democrats, Sen. Dennis Deconcini, D-Ariz.. and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, DCalif., stood by the President as he signed the executive orders, one of which would require the administration to place all of the plan's tax increases and spending cuts into a trust fund devoted to reducing the deficit.
Deconcini, who had pushed during congressional negotiations for a deficit reduction trust fund, said later in the day that he would support the budget plan. Four of the Senate's other 55 Democrats have said they will vote against the plan. Another handful are on the fence.
The President after a morning visit with the House Democratic Caucus for the first time pledged to try to eliminate the deficit in part through additional spending controls, which he said will be contained in his health-care reform legislation later this year.
His pledge came in response to criticism from Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., that the current budget plan will only reduce the annual federal deficit from about $285 billion to about $200 billion in 1998, and cut the growth in the $4.5 trillion national debt to $1 trillion over the next five years from $1.5 trillion.
"We don't cut it all the way to zero, but we will," Clinton said. "There will be further spending reductions by this Congress and this administration. "
Clinton repeated statements made frequently in recent days that his health-care plan will be designed to control growth of the government's two fastest growing entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as to extend health benefits to some 30 million people who currently are uninsured.
The two health-care programs, even with the $63 billion of spending reductions contained in the budget, are expected to grow by about 9% a year and account for much of the growth in the deficit projected under the administration's own forecast.
The second executive order signed by Clinton is aimed for the first time at trying to put annual spending controls on health care programs, along with Social Security, agricultural supports, veterans benefits, student loans, and the other entitlements.
That order, which would also enforce the $88 billion of entitlement reductions contained in the budget, requires President Clinton to submit legislation each year if the entitlements overall exceed targets established under the budget bill.
The legislation would recommend either that Congress cut spending or raise taxes to offset the excess entitlement spending, or take no action at all in light of unforeseen economic conditions or emergencies, Office of Management and Budget Director Leon Panetta said after the President signed the orders.
"It is a very important tool to put pressure on the entitlements. We won't be able to bury this issue anymore," Panetta said, because "it puts tremendous public focus on the budget and the President."
Unlike a similar entitlement review provision that was included in the House version of the budget but dropped by congressional negotiators, however, the executive order could not require Congress to act on the legislation submitted by the President.
President Clinton said he would continue to push for a separate bill to codify the entitlement review provision after Congress returns from its Labor Day recess in September, which would make such action binding on Congress.
The House Rules Committee was preparing late yesterday to approve a change in the House rules that would require the House, at least, to carry out the entitlement review by granting privileged, expedited procedures to any entitlement legislation submitted by the President.
The House rules, which a House leadership aide said would become effective with House approval of the budget package, would not commit the Senate to any such legislative review, however. It was the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats alike object to the entitlement provision, which forced the House to drop it from the budget package.
"We can only hope the Senate will see the light" and consider acting on entitlement reforms in the future, the leadership aide said.
Clinton also suggested that the Senate rules that prevented enactment of the provision as part of the budget package should be changed "at a later time."