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Congress facing tough issues on spending bills

In the closing weeks of its 1997 session, Congress returns this week to wrestle with spending bills. It's not money that's in dispute so much as the perennial social issues - particularly abortion and education.

Already weeks into the new fiscal year that started Oct. 1, President Clinton has signed into law only five of the 13 spending bills that must be passed every year to run the government. Two more have cleared Congress, and six remain in various states of progress or deadlock.Compared to recent years, that's a pretty good record. The low came two years ago, as the Republican Congress and the Clinton White House clashed so vigorously over spending priorities that the government shut down twice.

"It's a much smoother year," said Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "It's attributable primarily to the budget deal, but it's also a little bit the result of our learning curve." A blueprint worked out this year establishes broad spending priorities over the next five years to balance the federal budget.

"We obviously have some thorny issues ahead of us, but we are trying to work cooperatively, and that's a far cry from the warlike atmosphere we had in 1995 and 1996," said Larry Haas, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Before this fiscal year began, Congress and the White House readily agreed to a stopgap measure to keep federal operations going through Oct. 23, when lawmakers were to have finished the spending bills. Returning from its Columbus Day recess, Congress is ready to extend the deadline.

Livingston said they are on track to finish their work and recess Nov. 7 for the year.

But presidential veto threats loom over four bills.

Undoubtedly the biggest dispute is over language in the House-passed bill on foreign aid, which bars U.S. money from international family planning groups that provide or promote abortions.

Livingston said in a floor speech that while he supports the ban, the Senate's opposition and a presidential veto would bring the bill down. "This is a futile exercise which offers no solution, only continued stalemate," he said.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the measure's chief sponsor, said unlike earlier years GOP leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey, are "100 percent in support of what we are doing." He added: "We are absolutely standing fast."

A $31 billion bill to fund the Commerce, Justice and State departments also is in trouble. The problem centers on Census Bureau plans to use sampling techniques in the 2000 census, which House Republicans strongly oppose. They fear it could lead to a bigger count in minority areas and result in redrawn legislative districts that could help Democrats.

One of the biggest bills, $80 billion for labor, health and education programs, faces big problems over House attempts to kill Clinton's national student testing proposal. A Senate plan to give most of the Education Department's budget to states in the form of block grants appears likely to die.

The $4.8 billion District of Columbia bill is one of the smallest but faces a large hurdle over House efforts to subsidize poor kids who want to leave public schools for private or parochial schools.