Even the House's fiery freshman Republicans say there won't be another federal shutdown this election year. But the $1.63 trillion budget for 1997 will still be a high-profile political battleground for both parties.
The 16-month brawl between Congress and President Clinton that produced this year's budget was as bitter and confrontational as any in memory and came down to two competing themes. Republicans said they are more serious than Clinton about slashing spending and taxes and reducing the size and power of government. Clinton and fellow Democrats latched onto the budget-balancing drive, but claimed Republicans were pursuing it in an extreme, mean-spirited way.With House-Senate bargainers ready to begin drafting a compromise budget-balancing blueprint and committee work under way on individual spending bills, the fight over fiscal 1997 has already begun. And both sides are sticking to the basic themes. But with control of the White House and both houses of Congress at stake in less than six months, neither side seems willing to risk alienating voters by going to the mat.
"This is a presidential election year," said Rep. George Ra-dan-ovich, R-Calif., president of the 74-member House GOP first-termers. "You're not going to see a government shutdown even discussed before the election. It's not in anybody's best interests, and I don't think it's going to be even considered."
But that's not to say there won't be battles - and lots of them. Both parties find it hard to resist the fertile opportunities the budget offers to grab the high ground plus tarnish their rivals on issues such as cutting taxes, financing popular programs, and controlling the deficit.
In some cases, there are internal strains. House Republicans have already voted to provide about as much in 1997 as they did this year for annually approved domestic programs. But the amount is $5 billion less than their more moderate Senate counterparts want.
It was GOP cuts in such programs - school aid, environmental cleanups - that Democrats criticized repeatedly last year in hopes of tarring Republicans as uncaring extremists. Many Republicans want to avoid a replay of those attacks, and the record 27-day government closure.
"What I am trying to do, so you all know, is to make sure we do not end up like we did last year," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Thursday as senators voted 75-25 for his amendment adding the extra money.
House-Senate negotiators will ultimately agree to a compromise figure. But even with the full $5 billion extra, 1997 spending would still fall $14 billion below what the White House wants.
The administration is already on the attack.
In a recent letter White House officials wrote describing emerging GOP spending plans, they tossed such incendiary phrases as "jeopardize our efforts to protect public health and the environment," "threatens to underfund our parks and public lands," and "drastically cut the president's anti-crime requests."
Republicans hope to take the offensive on the issue of tax cuts, which Democrats say are irresponsible during a time of fierce deficits but oppose at their own political peril.
Already, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who resigns soon to campaign full-time for president, has pressed for a 4.3-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax cut. Republicans also want to press their $500-per-child tax credit and have already forced a vote on making workers' Social Security taxes deductible from their income taxes. Some of them will pursue reductions in the capital gains tax rate on profits from property sales, and it is safe to assume that the GOP will push for other reductions all year.
Republicans also plan to send the president legislation revamping welfare, Medicaid, and perhaps Medicare and other costly benefits. Though the two sides' differences over how to reshape those programs have narrowed, they are still divided enough that Clinton would probably veto such efforts.
Republicans think a veto would prove Clinton was not serious about remaking welfare or reining the deficit. Democrats argue the GOP proposals are restrictive and unfair.
In hopes of embarrassing Clinton, Dole has also promised a new vote the week of June 3 on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Dole conceded that it will be rejected narrowly as occurred last year, but his goals are really political: He knows that polls show 80 percent of Americans favor the amendment, and that Clinton and most Senate Democrats oppose it.
Besides keeping the government functioning, will anything substantive be achieved on the budget in this year's political hothouse climate? Participants doubt it.
"I still have some hope," said Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "But it diminishes with each week."