WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Thomas Foley said yesterday that he was open to a proposal by conservative Democrats to add spending caps on entitlement programs to the budget package, despite the Clinton administration's strong opposition.
Despite some reservations about the cap, the Washington State Democrat said some concession to the House's 50-member Conservative Democratic Forum, led by Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Tex., may be necessary to assure passage of the $343 billion tax and spending cut bill when it reaches the House floor next week.
The bill consists of $272 billion in tax increases, but also includes spending cuts and user fees, as well as President Clinton's tax-exempt bond proposals and a $525 billion permanent increase in the national debt limit to $4.9 trillion.
"I'm concerned about passing the bill." Foley said at a daily press briefing. "We need all Democratic groups working for that purpose," since Republicans will not support the tax increase.
But Vice President Gore, speaking at a separate news conference yesterday, was against putting such overall spending limits on the burgeoning Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs.
As proposed by Stenholm the caps would be set at the budget's projected spending levels in the next five years and enforced each year with across-the-board spending cuts in the entitlement programs if their actual outlays exceed those limits.
"The caps would be very bad for the country. We oppose them vehemently," Gore said, because it would "force veterans and other groups to finance increases in Medicare and Medicaid," the two fastest growing federal programs.
Gore said the administration is addressing the growth in the medical entitlement programs in its massive overhaul of the health-care system, due out within months. That plan will attempt to "squeeze out" waste in the programs, though it would be hamstrung by any caps, he said.
Cap proponents say the limits are needed because the two health-care programs under the administration's own estimates would keep the deficit well above $200 billion into the next century.
Stenholm and other House conservatives, who have waged a strong campaign for spending restraint this year, portray the cap amendment as the minimum they will accept from the House leadership to get their votes for the massive budget bill.
"That's the very least we could do," said Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn. Some conservatives would also like to include greater reductions in Medicare growth than the $50 billion already proposed in the bill. as well as limits on Social Security increases, he said.
The conservatives are hoping to win backing from the leadership for adding the entitlement caps amendment to the bill either in the House Rules Committee next week or on the House floor.
The House Governmental Affairs Committee also may consider the proposal in a meeting tomorrow, when the panel is expected to approve amendments setting mandatory caps on the government's $550 billion of discretionary spending programs in the next five years and extending the pay-as-you-go rules for new entitlement programs and tax expenditures.
Foley said that while he is open to the entitlement cap idea, he believes it would be difficult to implement because health-care costs have been so difficult to control.
While Gore openly opposed the idea, Office of Management and Budget director Leon Panetta has been talking with the Stenholm group behind the scenes in an effort to find common ground.
The President's and the leadership's goal is to make the bill as "palatable" as possible for House Democrats, a leadership aide said. "We're not trying to play tough. We're trying to make people fell more comfortable with their votes," he said.
On a related issue, to appease House liberals' concerns that the budget cuts social programs too much, House leaders have been working with the administration on a dramatically scaled-down version of Clinton's $16.3 billion job stimulus bill, which fell to a Senate Republican filibuster last month.
Winning the loyalty of liberals who support the jobs bill is paramount, said the leadership aide, because "Senate Republicans will do anything now to bring [the budget package] down."
Panetta submitted a $920 million version late Friday that includes $400 million of the bill's original $845 million of funding for the state clean water revolving funds.
State groups say the wastewater funding is sorely needed because the bond and loan program would not have received further payments under the Clinton budget plan.
The bill's spending would be offset by a 0.45% across-the-board cut in other domestic discretionary spending programs -- an unpopular feature that led the House Appropriations Committee to reject the bill last week as an amendment to a fiscal 1993 appropriations bill now pending in the House.
Foley said he may schedule a House vote on the new version of the jobs bill next week.