- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS

With the public focused on the economy and potential war with Iraq, few have noticed that Congress is hopelessly behind in its budget work. Even so, both parties are using the standoff to enhance their prospects in November's elections.

The new federal fiscal year starts today and lawmakers have finished none of the 13 annual bills that keep agencies in business. The government will stay open because Congress has approved legislation to keep it running temporarily. Neither party wants a federal shutdown five weeks from elections that will decide who runs the House and Senate for the next two years.

"I don't think anybody knows who would win" politically if there were a shutdown, said Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat.

"Both parties have learned the high stakes involved in that game of chicken," he said. The Republican-led Congress suffered a major loss of public support after its 1995-96 budget war with President Clinton produced two shutdowns.

At the heart of this year's budget-making impasse is a drive by President Bush and many Republicans to limit spending bills to $759 billion or less roughly $11 billion less than Democrats and some Republican lawmakers want. The rest of the $2.1 trillion budget covers automatically paid benefits such as Social Security.

For Democrats, the unfinished bills are a chance to accuse Republicans of hewing to a stingy budget proposed by Mr. Bush. They say that to leave room for the continuing costs of last year's Bush tax cut, Republicans would shortchange education, domestic security, health and other issues people care about.

"President Bush says one thing about leave no child behind, but does something else," said the No. 2 House Democrat, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, repeating accusations that he has underfinanced his own schools program.

Republicans are casting themselves as champions of fiscal prudence. At a time of resurgent federal deficits and a need to buttress defense and domestic security, they say Democrats refuse to acknowledge that belt-tightening is needed for lower-priority programs.

Democrats "are infuriated that our Republican House majority is a dike holding back waves upon waves of new Democrat nonsecurity spending," said Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking House Republican.

The Republican failure to move any spending bills through the House since July has served another purpose: Not aggravating an internal party fissure just before the elections.

Conservatives have insisted on holding the bills to the levels Mr. Bush has proposed, starting with one allotting $130 billion for education, health and labor programs. Centrist Republicans and nearly all Democrats want a bigger bill. With a narrow 14-seat majority in the 435-member House, Republican leaders have refused to hold a vote that might yield an embarrassing defeat and anger the party's core conservative voters.

Democrats have used that dispute to cast the Republicans as a party dominated by right-wing extremists.

The fight between Republican conservatives and centrists "is a fight between Mike Tyson and Grandma Moses," said Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat. "The moderates in the Republican Party are lucky if they get the water cooler turned on."

Republicans, in turn, blame the budget standoff on the Senate, which Democrats control by a 50-49 margin, plus a Democratic-leaning independent.

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