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Federal Budget Battle Moves Toward Uncertain Outcome

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When might President Clinton sign a final 1996 education spending bill?

A Democratic House aide said last week that he would bet on late December "if there were an office pool."

A House Republican aide, however, said that foot-dragging by the Senate and the White House could force the Department of Education and other federal agencies to operate the whole fiscal year under a continuing resolution, a stopgap spending plan intended to keep the government running during budget talks.

Republicans could also try to force the president to sign controversial bills by linking them to legislation needed to raise the amount of debt the government can incur. The White House took steps last week to lower debt levels in an effort to fend off that threat.

In any case, many observers predict that it could take a short government shutdown to force final agreements on the 13 spending bills that pay for federal operations--or an alternative.

President Clinton has signed just one of those bills, even though fiscal 1996 started on Oct. 1. The government is currently being funded by a temporary spending plan that expires Nov. 13.

Elizabeth Morra, the spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said committee Republicans are hopeful that many more of the bills will be signed by then, although she conceded that the bill financing education programs is one of those likely to remain unfinished.

Action Scheduled

"By Nov. 13, maybe half of all appropriations bills will be passed and signed by the president," said Robert Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington-based think tank.

The remaining agencies, which would almost certainly include the Department of Education, would probably need a second stopgap plan, Mr. Reischauer said, adding that this would be the moment when a brief government shutdown could occur as Republicans and Democrats try to demonstrate the strength of their convictions.

"In a funny way, it could be good for both parties," he said.

The House approved an appropriations bill last month that would cut $3.5 billion from current federal education spending. The Senate could begin debate on its version of the bill, which would trim $2 billion, this week.

President Clinton has threatened to veto both versions, which would cut some of his favorite programs and also include contentious legislative riders on abortion, federal contracting, and lobbying limits on nonprofit groups.

The House and Senate are also expected to begin debate this week on the other component of the budget package: so-called reconciliation bills that would make reductions in entitlement spending, including big changes in welfare and Medicaid, and more than $10 billion in savings from student-loan programs over seven years.

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