Brinkmanship: Congress and the Administration on the Dept. of Commerce

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Publication date: 
9 November 1995


A year-long campaign by House Republican freshmen to abolish the
Department of Commerce is coming to a head this week as Congress
struggles over must-pass legislation.  Failure to pass two key
bills could result in a default by the federal government, and a
shutdown of the government next Tuesday.

This afternoon, the House agreed by a vote of 220-200 to a
procedure which attached a Commerce Department dismantlement
provision to a short term debt limit extension bill.  This
legislation would increase the federal government's borrowing
authority by $67 billion.  Congress has traditionally been
reluctant to agree to an increase in this limit, and this year it
has been particularly difficult because so many of the 73 freshman
Republican representatives want to reduce government spending.  To
help ensure passage, and to keep a promise to the freshman that
Commerce legislation would be considered, the House leadership
agreed to using the debt limit bill as a dismantlement vehicle.

What is likely to pass in the House is sure to run into immediate
opposition in the Senate, as well as at the White House.  Senate
Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-KS), while favoring Commerce's
elimination, said today that he opposes doing so through the debt
ceiling bill.  Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici
(R-NM), speaking of the dismantlement provision, has warned, "There
aren't enough votes for that over here -- by a lot."  It is
expected that the Senate will not include a similar provision in
its own debt limit bill, setting the stage for a major disagreement
in the conference committee seeking to resolve differences in the
two versions of the legislation. 

Even if the dismantlement provision does survive in the debt limit
bill sent to the President, the Administration has left no doubt
that it will be vetoed.  White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta
has told House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) that the debt limit
bill would have to be "clean" of any provisions such as that
abolishing Commerce.  Today the Washington Post quoted one senior
administration official as saying, "Our position is that it does
not matter what they put on this legislation, we are not going to
accept anything but clean bills because we will not be blackmailed
over default."  The stakes are high, because without an increase in
the debt limit the federal government could go into default by the
middle of next week. 

Congress is also racing to complete action on another bill to
provide additional money to keep the government from closing down
on Monday night.  As of this week, only two (agriculture and
military construction) of the thirteen appropriations bills for FY
1996 have been signed into law.  Under legislation the House passed
last night, no more than 60% of last year's spending would be
allowed by a department through December 1.  Without this stop-gap
funding, at least 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed.
Today a White House spokesman said there are "no chances" a
shutdown could be avoided.  When asked about the shutdown, House
Science Committee Chairman and Budget Committee Vice Chairman
Robert Walker (R-PA) stated, "I don't know that we're going to
regard that as a major emergency." 

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