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As Congress returns from recess, GOP tests Clinton's veto resolve on spending bills.

Hill Priorities: Money for Government, Taxpayers

If bills to keep the US government running are going to become law before the 105th Congress adjourns for good in October, lawmakers and President Clinton have a lot of compromising to do.

These annual spending bills - 13 in all - will be the top priority as the Senate returns today and the House next week from an August recess. Without them, departments such as Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, and State cannot carry out their responsibilities or pay employees.

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But getting these bills through Congress is complicated by White House threats to veto several measures over policy riders Republicans have tacked on. Among the sticking points are unresolved issues that have vexed Washington for months: anti-abortion provisions, how to conduct the 2000 census, and whether to implement the Kyoto global-warming treaty.

The task may leave Congress little time to pass any other major legislation - even Republicans' much-sought-after tax cut.

"My guess is it's pretty doubtful," says Sarah Binder, who watches Congress at the Brookings Institution, a moderate Washington think tank. "The question is whether they want to wrap up anything else for electoral purposes."

Clouding the scene are a likely report from independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the president's scandal woes, which some speculate have weakened him in his battles with Hill Republicans.

The House has passed all but two spending bills, while the Senate still has five to go. But none has yet gone to the president.

"The big variable is ... the president's 'October surprise' ... to shut down the government through a veto or two," says John Czwartacki, spokesman for Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. Republicans claim Mr. Clinton will try to blame them for any shutdown in an election ploy that would also draw attention from his personal problems.

But Ms. Binder doubts any shutdown will occur. "I have a hard time imagining that either side has the stomach for that type of fireworks," she says.

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Getting Clinton's signature

A common prediction here is that Republicans will pass the bills with their policy riders, and the president will veto them. Then, each side having made its point, Congress will quickly send something more palatable to Clinton that he will sign.

After dealing with the spending bills, Republicans will try hard to cut taxes. The House wants to slash more than $100 billion over five years. The Senate has settled for a $30 billion trim, agreeing with the president that the federal surplus should be reserved for now to shore up Social Security in anticipation of reforms.

While a compromise plan is circulating in the House, some observers predict that Republicans will defer any cut until next year. It's also unlikely the president would sign any of the GOP proposals.

Among other major issues, a "patient's bill of rights" to regulate managed-care health plans remains at the top of everybody's agenda. The House passed a bill in July, but the Senate is stalled. Democrats seek to consider more amendments than the GOP wants to grant; Republicans think Democrats are trying to maneuver them into embarrassing votes.

The Republican bill would allow patients to appeal denials of payment for treatment, while Democrats would go further, giving patients the right to sue their health plan. The Democrats' proposal would also cover more people than the GOP bill. It's not clear either side will back down enough to reach a compromise.

"Democrats would rather have the issue [for the elections] than a bill," Mr. Czwartacki charges.

Abortion: Act II

Meanwhile, Senator Lott also hopes to schedule a vote overriding the president's veto of a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions. (The House earlier voted to override.) He may try for votes on issues such as giving the president fast-track trade-negotiating authority, bankruptcy reform, and temporary visas for foreign high-tech workers.

Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, for his part, will try to force a vote on campaign-finance reform, which passed the House, and on a plan for more flexible loan terms for farmers hit hard by bad weather and low prices. "Farmers and ranchers need this now because [an] economic crisis is occurring in farm states," says Molly Rowley, a Daschle spokeswoman.

Democrats may also try to raise the federal minimum wage.

But if, in the end, Congress does nothing more this year than fund the government, the GOP may still be able to make a strong case to voters. "Their message is, 'We balanced the budget,' " Binder says. "That's a pretty good one."

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