KWAME HOLMAN: These new days of annual revenue surpluses on Capitol Hill have not made agreement on a federal budget any easier to reach. That might be due to the continued existence of an outstanding debt of staggering proportions.
SEN. ERNEST HOLLINGS, (D) South Carolina; The debt when we started the fiscal year was five trillion, sixty-six some odd billion. It has gone up to five trillion, seven hundred and seventy-three some odd billion. So what we have done is we've increased the debt. Everyone is talking about surplus. "What are we going to do with all of these great surpluses?"
KWAME HOLMAN: The debate over the surplus-- Social Security and Medicare, tax cuts and spending-- all converged this week as the Senate struggled to produce a budget ripe with election year issues.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI, Chairman, Budget Committee: It is not a risky resolution, as some will claim. I contend that increasing spending for domestic programs nearly 14% next year, as the President would do, is much more risky to the future of Social Security and debt reduction than a modest tax reduction.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday morning, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici brought to the floor the Republicans' budget blueprint for fiscal year 2001 that was much like the House plan narrowly approved two weeks ago. It calls for increased spending for defense and education, reserves $40 billion over five years to fund a new Medicare prescription drug program for seniors. It reduces the publicly-held debt next year by $174 billion and provides $13 billion in tax cuts next year: $150 billion over five years. But 50 hours of scheduled debate opened the process to more than 100 amendments; attempts primarily by Democrats to refine, reshape, even overhaul the Republican-designed budget. By this morning, after three full days of debate and votes, amendments still were stacked like jets on a runway.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Abraham on Social Security lock box, Johnson on veterans, Ashcroft on Social Security investment, McCrosky on digital divide.
KWAME HOLMAN: Virginia's Chuck Robb in the midst of a tough reelection fight, fronted one Democratic attempt to delay the republicans' planned tax cuts until details of a new prescription drug program for seniors were in place.
SEN. CHARLES ROBB, (D) Virginia: Do Senators want tax cuts, or do they want to help our nation's seniors? Our friends on the other side say they would like to do both, but the language in the budget resolution suggests differently.
KWAME HOLMAN: Massachusetts' Edward Kennedy followed Robb to the floor and illustrated his arguments with an impressive array of charts and graphs.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY, (D) Massachusetts: We hope we won't hear from the other side - we're treating tax breaks the same we're treating prescription drugs. You're not! You have one criteria for tax breaks, for wealthy individuals, and another criteria for the needy people, for the elderly people of this country.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tennessee's Bill Frist, a heart surgeon by profession, spoke for most Republicans, arguing instead for overall Medicare reform.
SEN. BILL FRIST, (R) Tennessee: It is irresponsible, unless you address the overall health care security, to take a benefit, a very expensive benefit, and simply set it on top of a system that cannot be sustained long term. It is deceptive. It is just not right. Our seniors deserve better.
SPOKESMAN: The clerk will call the roll.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senate rules required 60 votes for Robb's motion to pass, and it fell well short.
SPOKESMAN: The yays are 51, the nays are 49, the motion is not agreed to, the point of order is sustained, and the amendment falls.
KWAME HOLMAN: New Mexico Democrat Jess Bingaman took the floor and argued for an additional $5 ½ billion for a special education program. It resurrected a classic debate over who is better able to direct school policy. New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg took issue with the Democrats' position.
SEN. JUDD GREGG, (R) New Hampshire: It is essentially the attitude that we know best here in Washington how to run the school districts across this country. They must tell the states exactly what they must do with dollars coming to them from Washington -- a little bit of disconnect, of course, because the dollars coming from Washington did not start in Washington. They started back in the states.
KWAME HOLMAN: Connecticut's Christopher Dodd provided the opposition.
SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD, (D) Connecticut: For those who argue a block grant approach to merely send a check back to the states, knowing full well that so many of these local communities lack the kinds of clout and influence at the state level, particularly those communities, rural and urban, that are most in need, is to do a great disservice to the parents and educators, to the citizens of those communities.
KWAME HOLMAN: This debate raged on for several hours, but in the end, the Bingaman amendment never did come up for a final vote. Republicans voted simply to table or put the issue aside. But it wasn't just Democrats who suffered budget defeats. Colorado Republican Wayne Allard tried to put Congress on a scheduled payment plan to retire the federal debt in 20 years.
SEN. WAYNE ALLARD, (R) Colorado: We must have a plan to repay the debt, but we must have a plan and a repayment schedule, just like you have on your home mortgage. We can save Social Security and we can have some provisions in there for tax cuts. And with a three-pronged approach, I think the American people would understand our commitment to their future.
KWAME HOLMAN: New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, the retiring ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, first questioned Allard politely about how his plan would work.
SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG, (D) New Jersey: Would the distinguished Senator be kind enough to just tell me what the formula says in direct debt repayment over the five-year period.
KWAME HOLMAN: But after a series of questions about the Allard plan, Lautenberg proceeded to shred it.
SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG: Now, I hope it is clear to everybody who is listening that this is a cut taken without regard for the consequences. It doesn't matter where it comes from. It can come out of Medicare, based on what we are hearing. It could come out of education. It could come out of cops. Pull in the FBI, cut the number of FBI agents, cut safety programs, cut Coast Guard-- cut, cut. It is like the harvest at the end of the growing season-- just cut it. The only problem is that we do have other obligations.
KWAME HOLMAN: Budget Chairman Domenici was somewhat more forgiving in his opposition.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Senator, I just want to say, all good intentions attributable to this amendment, this amendment prejudges everything that we need for the next five years, and perhaps five years after that. I am already against the amendment. I don't think it is the right thing to do.
SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG: I could see a hefty tax raise coming to pay off the debt.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: It could, and it could be that tax cuts in the future aren't what Republicans have been thinking either.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Allard amendment to set the Congress on a strict debt repayment plan failed miserably.
SPOKESMAN: The question is on the amendment.
KWAME HOLMAN: There was a vote that measured how much support there might be to remove the 4.3 cents a gallon federal gasoline tax that was tacked on in 1993. Majority Leader Trent Lott had scheduled a vote for next week to do just that in an effort to give consumers a break from rising fuel prices. But Democrat Robert Byrd argued against it and forced colleagues to go on record with their positions this week.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD, (D) West Virginia: In adopting this amendment, the Senate will confirm the position that it took enacting T-21, that all gas tax revenues should go to the states for critical transportation infrastructure needs and that we meant it when we said we were restoring the trust to the highway trust fund.
SPOKESMAN: The Senator from Virginia.
SEN. JON WARNER, (R) Virginia: Mr. President, we took the 4.3% out of the general revenue, put it in the highway trust fund for the expressed purpose to improve our nation's highways.
KWAME HOLMAN: Virginia's John Warner was one of 22 Republicans who joined with Byrd and 43 other Democrats against the repeal of the gas tax. And Lot still plans to bring up the issue for a formal vote next week.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I believe we're ready to go to final passage, aren't we, Mr. President.
SPOKESMAN: The ayes, and nays. The clerk will call the role.
KWAME HOLMAN: By mid afternoon today, all time allowed to debate the resolution expired. Despite 58 separate amendments the Senate ultimately debated and voted on, the budget blueprint was approved in almost the same form as when it was first presented four days ago.
SPOKESMAN: The ayes are 4-5-1, the nays are 45. The budget resolution is considered adopted.
KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman Domenici sounded exhausted but satisfied.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: I believe this was a rare achievement this year, very hard budget with different philosophic points of view. Overall, this is a good budget for this year. We are in a presidential election this year and somebody next year, a new president, will tell us what changes they want.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate and House versions of the budget resolution now will be combined and become the framework for the specific tax-and-spending measures Congress will take up next.