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Congress aims to pass budget, end session

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House and congressional negotiators struggledThursday to resolve a handful of nagging issues in a big legislative bundle of budget bills and tax cuts that the lame-duck 106th Congress must pass before it adjourns to make way for the 107th in January.

Lawmakers said they hoped to finish the package later in the day, for final House and Senate votes on Friday that will mark an end to six years of acrimony between Republican-led Congresses and President Clinton.

"I think we'll have it done soon," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said of the bundle of some $420 billion worth of budget bills, as well as immigration reforms, tax breaks to spur development in poor areas, and Medicare payments to health care providers.

But a White House budget official said there were still "a lot of issues to be worked out."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, who for months has urged a resolution to the overdue $1.8 trillion federal budget, was in a last-minute standoff with the White House over limits it wants to impose on fishing in his home state of Alaska to protect a declining species of sea lion.

Angrily pounding a podium on the Senate floor, Alaska Republican Stevens said the fishing limits would throw people in his state out of year-round jobs.

"Federal control of these two magnificent fisheries is not going to be approved by this senator," he thundered.

White House officials and lawmakers also were still wrangling over final language to restore more than $30 billion to healthcare providers that had been cut from Medicare payments in a 1997 plan to balance the federal budget.

Both sides also were still working on final language to help keep families together while illegal immigrants seek legal status, and to give immigrants more legal redress.

Both sides claim wins

In a move to appease conservative Republicans, lawmakers and the White House agreed cut some $5 billion from nearly $40 billion in budget increases for fiscal 2001 from fiscal 2000.

Nearly $4 billion of the cuts are from the $350 billion bill for labor, health and education, which has been the last major unresolved part of the budget that was due back on the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

Some Democrats grumbled that the bill with many of their priorities was bearing the brunt of cuts. But the White House crowed that negotiations yielded a 25 percent increase for Clinton's effort to reduce class sizes, and an 18.5 percent -- or $6.6 billion -- overall increase for education.

Republicans said they also wanted more school money, and said they protected almost all of the increases they sought for medical research by the National Institutes of Health.

Even with the cuts, the bill is some $13 billion higher than fiscal 2000 levels.

The remaining $1 billion would come in roughly 0.2 percent across-the-board cuts from $540 billion worth of other federal programs including defense.

The package also will include funding for the departments of Commerce, Justice, and States, the Treasury Department and Postal Service, and Congress' own operations.

Those measures were stalled in a budget blow-up between Clinton and Republicans before the Nov. 7 elections that forced Congress into a rare lame-duck session.

The package also will include $25 billion in tax breaks over 10 years to spur investment in poor areas.

Efforts to settle the must-pass budget had lagged while lawmakers and the nation were preoccupied with the contested presidential election.

But in a meeting between Clinton and congressional leaders on Monday, with it becoming clearer that the presidential contest was winding down, a deal was struck on overall spending levels that broke the months of stalemate.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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Thursday, December 14, 2000


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