November 5, 1999

Giving In on Foreign Aid Bill, G.O.P. Finds an Election Issue

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  • Issue in Depth: The Budget

    WASHINGTON -- The White House and Congress agreed Thursday night to cut a deal on a foreign aid bill, adding $799 million more than Republicans wanted to spend, Congressional aides said.

    But in the battle, Republican leaders see a golden opportunity to paint Democrats as more concerned about helping foreigners than protecting Social Security.

    For two days, the Republicans held up the foreign aid bill -- and with it, the battle over the budget, in which 5 of the year's 13 spending bills remain unsigned -- arguing over the desire of the White House to spend $370 million to ease the debts of 41 impoverished nations, mostly in Africa.

    Clinton has said the aid will "enable the world's poorest and most heavily indebted countries to finance health, education and opportunity programs."

    The House majority whip, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, calls it an effort to "rob the Social Security surplus to underwrite the national debt of Nepal."

    And aides to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and DeLay say Democrats want to spend money on foreign aid that would come from the Social Security surplus, which both parties have sworn to protect. The aides said the Republican leaders thought that argument could be instrumental in helping Republicans keep control of Congress in the 2000 elections.

    One aide said it boiled down to this: "Ghana versus Grandma."

    The aides said the Republicans would paint the Democrats as willing to put foreign potentates before aging Americans. "All they want," Representative Harold Rogers, Republican of Kentucky, said on the House floor today, "is to give the taxpayers' money away to foreign countries and be damned what happens at home."

    The Republicans' tactics became clear during tense talks between Congress and the White House.

    The bill passed by the Republican Congress contained $12.7 billion, 14 percent less than Clinton's request. On Oct. 18, he vetoed it, calling it "another sign of the new isolationism that would have America bury its head in the sand at the height of our power and prosperity."

    The negotiators went into closed-door conference in Hastert's office on Wednesday night thinking they might make a deal. They did not. A serious sticking point developed: debt relief for foreign nations.

    The President wanted $370 million, about $1.20 per American, to help the 41 nations identified by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as "heavily indebted" lighten the burden of their poverty. Thirty-three of those nations, including Ghana, are in Africa.

    But the Republicans held the line on debt relief at $123 million. This quarter-billion dollar difference was the biggest barrier to completing the bill. Tonight, a senior Republican aide said they had won that argument.

    In the end, the Republicans agreed to a White House proposal to add $799 million to their $12.7 billion bill. The major increases were $170 million in economic support funds, $150 million for international development assistance, $104 million for nuclear-security programs in the former Soviet Union, and $75 million for peacekeeping operations in Kosovo. They earlier agreed to spend $1.8 billion over three years to underwrite Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

    Now the White House and Congress will move on to negotiations over four more bills, financing the Departments of Commerce, Justice, State, Interior, and Housing and Urban Development and federal money for the District of Columbia. They set a new deadline tonight: Wednesday.

    The Republican leaders, including Hastert, voiced unhappiness at having had to add nearly $2.6 billion to the foreign aid bill, which will now have to pass the House and Senate. And Republicans said the argument over foreign aid versus Social Security would be a main campaign theme in 2000.

    There will be rebuttals. For example, it could be said that the Republican-written spending bills dip by more than $17 million into Social Security. Since money comes from the same pot, any program can be identified as the one that used Social Security money. Opponents of more military spending, for example, point out that Congress increased Pentagon spending by $17 billion.

    DeLay's view of debt relief -- he calls it "American taxpayer dollars sent overseas to subsidize the corruption and mismanagement of foreign countries" -- resonates with many Republicans.

    But not all.

    Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition and a former Republican presidential candidate, supports debt relief. So do Pope John Paul II, the World Bank and most of the world's aid agencies.

    "The debt-relief initiative sends our tax dollars to make sure children are educated and vaccinated, and there are roads to get farmers' goods to markets," said Seth Amgott, spokesman for Oxfam, a worldwide antipoverty agency. "An American contribution to that effort is entirely worthy and eminently affordable."

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