WASHINGTON -- When the Senate Republican Conference convened last Wednesday for its weekly senators-only luncheon, Sen. Phil Gramm rose to state his unique views about the session-ending confusion in Congress. That momentarily turned the GOP malaise on Capitol Hill into pandemonium.
Gramm made clear that he, joined by Sen. John McCain, would not vote for appropriations bills loaded down not only with President Clinton's spending increases but pork stealthily injected by members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Gramm thereby lit the notoriously short fuse of the committee's imperious chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens.
He exploded. Stevens has become the Earl of Earmark, lathering goodies for his home state of Alaska in one bill after another. In no uncertain language, he made clear last week his contempt toward the Gramm-McCain plan for a pork-free diet. What's more, Stevens and his appropriators are going to win.
That does not lend credence to George W. Bush's assertion that Republicans mean leaner government. Congressional Republicans are less worried about the presidential election than their desperate desire to get out of Washington, so that House members and senators up for re-election can defend their seats.
But in his final tormenting of the GOP, Clinton demands approval of his program before he lets them go. It is a fact of Washington life that Senate appropriators will solve this problem by capitulating.
With the fiscal year ending Oct. 1, the appropriations process is in chaos. Although the House has passed every appropriations bill, only two have reached the president's desk. That's no accident, grumble Senate Republican leaders. They see Stevens consciously "slow-walking" the money bills all year so that everything is jammed up now when Congress should be adjourned.
The result is high cards in the hands of Bill Clinton and Ted Stevens. Lobbyists deconstructed and analyzed last week's remarkable assertion by Press Secretary Joe Lockhart as he finished his two-year hitch at the White House: "I think it would be very hard for anyone in this country to understand why campaigning was more important than funding education ... why going home to some fund-raiser at home is more important than doing the important business of work."
The "important business" as viewed by Clinton: Democratic versions of prescription drug aid, HMO reform, a higher minimum wage, hate crimes legislation and school construction funds. Hints come from the White House that the whole package need not be passed -- just most of it. The GOP desire to get out of town by appeasing the president is irresistible.
Everybody in Washington sees final appropriations, perhaps in an omnibus bill, capitulating to Clinton and containing the earmarked pork demanded by the appropriators. Why not, since we now enjoy the luxury of budget surpluses? A spending limit for the new fiscal year of $625 billion was set this year over the protests of conservatives who thought it too high and appropriators who thought it too low. Spending has now reached $645 billion -- and is rising daily.
Enter Gramm and McCain. They want a clean continuing resolution to fund the government that would eliminate both earmarked pork and Clinton's wish-list. While the appropriators blame higher spending on emergency demands by the Pentagon, McCain has spelled out the items earmarked by Chairman Stevens for his state of Alaska in the Defense Department appropriations bill as in other money measures. Items that were not contained in the budget and not passed by either house magically appear in the conference committee's final version.
It is not just money that appropriators attempt to control. They tried to undermine authority by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require vehicle testing for susceptibility to rollovers, without consideration by the committee with jurisdiction: the Commerce Committee, headed by John McCain. The rollover regulation was restored, but other earmarks persist.
Republicans were incensed last week when the president, after adding enough federal bureaucrats to man two U.S. Army divisions, with unmatched audacity attacked the "free-spending" Congress.
But how can Republican senators properly protest when, in the dead of the night, they honeycomb bills with pork for special interests back home? McCain and Gramm have shown their colleagues a way to restore virtue. It is being summarily rejected.