President Clinton last night vetoed legislation that would have funded Congress’ budget for fiscal 2001, a move certain to blow the smoldering end-of-the-year budget battle with Republicans into an outright conflagration.
“This is an open declaration of war against Congress,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, said in anticipation of the veto last night. “Everything is off the table until we have voted on the veto override, everything,” Mr. Stevens said.
The president vetoed the bill at 11:30 p.m., a half-hour before the deadline for him to sign or veto the bill.
“The Congress’ continued refusal to focus on the priorities of the American people leave me no alternative but to veto this bill,” the president said in a statement released by the White House around midnight.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Clinton had hinted he was considering a veto of the $30 billion bill, which combined the 2001 budgets for Treasury and Congress. The latter also would have allowed members of Congress to receive a $3,800 pay raise and would have repealed a 3 percent federal telephone tax enacted in 1896 to pay for the Spanish-American War.
“The bill itself is all right. But there’s something that strikes me as a little wrong in taking care of the Congress and the White House when we haven’t taken care of the American people,” Mr. Clinton said.
Vetoing the Treasury measure will infuriate Republicans who added $348 million to the measure to satisfy Clinton demands and ensure his signature.
“That is a breach of faith,” Mr. Stevens said.
The veto ended a day’s worth of sparring ironically begun in the wee hours of the morning when budget negotiators reached what they thought was a final agreement on the $350 billion fiscal 2001 budget for federal education, labor and health programs.
House Republican leaders spiked that deal, which would have cleared major hurdles to finishing the fiscal 2001 budget, finding fault with almost every major decision made, one Republican aide said.
“We’re not going to get pushed out of town with a bad deal,” House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said. “You call it a stalemate. I call it fighting for the American people to get good legislation for them.”
The rejection sparked angry recriminations from Democrats and the White House.
“We thought we had an agreement, [but] the Republican leadership came back this afternoon and ripped it apart,” Mr. Clinton said from the White House lawn yesterday afternoon. He accused Republicans of caving to the “whispers of special interests.”
White House aides and congressional negotiators had met for hours on Sunday until well past midnight on what they thought was a final deal on the $113 billion 2001 budget for federal labor, health and education programs.
They left the meeting weary but pleased they had finally made substantial progress on the single largest annual spending bill and one of the last to be resolved. The fiscal year began Oct. 1, and Congress has had to pass 10 “continuing resolutions” to assure the government’s doors stay open.
Nonetheless, Republican negotiators were rebuffed by their leaders in a closed-door meeting shortly before noon Monday.
The bill would provide a total of $350 billion, about $114 billion of which is under Congress’ annual control. It would be a $14 billion increase over the plan Republicans had agreed to in intraparty negotiations.
The deal announced early yesterday morning would have included substantial spending increases in education funding, including $1.3 billion for school modernization, $1.75 billion for teacher hiring, $1 billion for after-school centers, and $7.4 billion for special-education grants.
Negotiators had left to Republicans leaders to resolve whether to allow continued fishing of pollock off Alaska. Environmentalists say overfishing is leaving the stellar sea lion to starve. Alaskans say a fishing embargo would devastate their economy.
Negotiators also left for Republican leaders to decide whether to override an administration effort to prevent snowmobiling in certain wilderness areas.
But House Republicans objected to the fact that the deal would not block new workplace-injury regulations from taking effect. Businesses object to the regulations, which deal with repetitive-stress injuries and other questions of ergonomics, but which unions support.
“Our proposal would save these businesses $9 billion a year and save 300,000 workers the pain and suffering associated with the injuries,” Mr. Clinton said.
“Once again, the Republican leadership has let the whispers of the special interests drown out the voices of the American people. Families should not have to choose between worker safety and their children’s education.”
Republican staffers later explained that their leaders had not objected to the deal reached on ergonomics, but were concerned that the deal would not actually meet the negotiators’ objectives.
Republican leaders also objected to the failure of the bill to block elementary and secondary schools from dispensing the so-called morning-after abortion pill.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said they could not “force this down the throat of our members.”
Budget talks often stall in the morning over details of an agreement reached the night before, but Democrats insisted they had had the rug pulled out from them yesterday.
“I am at a loss as to who we are negotiating with,” said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat. “I don’t know where we go from here.”
Even Republican negotiators were confounded.
“We don’t do anything in a vacuum,” said Elizabeth Morra, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee. “We were told to get the bill done.”
Mr. Stevens warned the president against retaliating but agreed “we had a deal.”
“We are on the way to get [the budget done by Thursday] if people are reasonable in their objections,” Mr. Stevens said.