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Congress prepared to approve big increases in spending

Cushioned by a burgeoning surplus, Congress is poised to approve large increases in spending by federal agencies, pushing the national budget to record levels.

Top-ranking Republicans predict the perennial year-end wrangling between Congress and the White House will result in a federal budget for the 2001 fiscal year that allocates at least $614-billion, and probably quite a bit more, for discretionary spending.

That figure would represent a 5 percent increase over the $586-billion Congress approved last year after a heated debate with the Clinton administration that delayed final approval of the last spending bills until Nov. 19, seven weeks after the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

The figure would also exceed the nearly $600-billion that Congress set in April as a ceiling for discretionary spending for the coming fiscal year. Discretionary spending includes everything in the budget except the automatic payments for items like Social Security benefits and interest payments on the national debt.

"I think everyone recognizes that we're going to have to lift the budget caps," as the limits on discretionary spending are known, said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The widespread view among congressional Republicans that federal spending will rise significantly in the next budget is causing disquiet among the party's fiscal hawks.

The increase in spending is brought on not only by the anticipated surplus, but also by pressures from the White House to agree to some of its priorities as a condition for letting members of Congress leave town to campaign, and by the demands of individual lawmakers on their leaders for some fiscal bacon to take home to their districts.

A $288-billion measure for the military that includes a 3.7 percent pay raise for U.S. soldiers, sailors and aviators has already been approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton, putting Congress well along the path to exceeding the $600-billion mark.

Those bills that are left would pay for foreign aid and domestic, non-military items _ everything from the federal courts, air traffic control radars and interstate highways, to schools, the Head Start program, veterans' hospitals, water treatment plants, national parks and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 these items have prompted down-to-the-wire fights between Congress and the administration, and, in 1995, the brief shutdown of the government, an action that inflicted grave political wounds on congressional Republicans.

The fact that many Republicans are supporting expanded federal spending illustrates how the blossoming surplus and the desire to maintain the fragile majority in Congress has eroded the Republicans' traditional fiscal restraints.

"The era of relative fiscal conservatism that the Reagan folks tried to implement is over," said Stanley E. Collender, a managing director of the Federal Budget Consulting Group at Fleischman-Hillard, a public relations company.

Last year, Congress approved a budget that technically was within spending ceilings mandated by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. But the lawmakers were able to stay under the ceilings only by declaring $24-billion in spending for items like the financing of the 2000 Census to be emergencies and not subject to the law's restrictions.

But this year Congress appears to be ready to dispense with such gimmicks and unabashedly approve large spending increases.

"The caps are irrelevant," said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who is chairman of the Interior subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "Nobody pays any attention to them anymore."

This year's tussle will focus on a few major spending bills and the battles will be as much over how the money is spent as how much is allocated. Also, some of the fights will be over legislative language known as riders that are attached to spending bills.