WASHINGTON, May 22 -- The Senate raced through more than two dozen votes Wednesday on the GOP's ambitious 1997 budget plan -- a massive and time consuming undertaking for the 100-member chamber -- but more work remained. With the clock ticking down to a weeklong Memorial Day recess for the Senate and a week full of evening events, lawmakers set up votes 10 minutes apart to dispense with the Senate's version of a grand Republican plan they contend will ultimately eliminate federal deficits by 2002. The Senate plowed through 27 amendments to the plan over nine hours, most of them nonbinding Sense of the Senate measures expressing chamber opinions on a variety of topics. But senators called it a day as they neared the starting time for an annual dinner with their spouses. Senate GOP Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., who has dubbed the frantic work a 'vote-a-rama,' said that the failure of the Senate to complete work earlier would almost certainly push off until after Memorial Day Senate consideration of a House-passed bill to repeal a 4.3-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. Retiring Senate GOP leader Bob Dole sought a repeal of that tax, part of a 1993 deficit reduction package pushed by President Clinton, before the holiday season. But Senate leaders says the protracted debate on the budget has squeezed out most other legislation including the repeal, which Dole had used to help fuel his flagging presidential bid. That sword cut both ways, and Democratic leaders predicted a vote on President Clinton's plan to boost the minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to $5.15 an hour would not materialize until the first week of June.
Meanwhile, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office issued a revision of its economic forecast, predicting the economy would continue growing at a 'moderate' rate. The CBO backed President Clinton's claim that his 1993 deficit reduction package, passed without any Republican support, was yielding results. Democrats paid a heavy political price for that vote, losing control of the House and Senate a year later to Republicans who decried the deficit reduction plan as the largest tax boost in history. The CBO said the annual federal deficit would drop to $144 billion in the current fiscal year -- the fourth consecutive annual decline after years of steady increases. But in the same breath, the CBO bolstered Republican demands for major changes in federal spending patterns, concluding the deficit would begin rising in 1997 without changes especially in expensive entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and welfare. The CBO predicted the deficit would rise to $171 billion. Even if spending on items other than entitlements was frozen, CBO forecast that the deficit would rise to $159 billion. Since winning control of Congress in 1994, Republicans have been pushing for a budget that will trim spending to balance the budget by 2002 and also provide enough to pay for some tax cuts. Republicans lost a bruising battle with Clinton over the GOP's 1996 fiscal plan, which called for reducing federal spending $1 trillion over seven years, nearly half of that from Medicare, Medicaid and welfare. The aim was to end deficits by 2002 and provide $245 billion in tax cuts. The Clinton administration lambasted that budget as cutting programs for the elderly, poor and sick to pay for a tax cut that would benefit the wealthy. This year, Republicans have offered a revised plan to reduce spending by $700 billion over six years to end deficits. More than a third of the reductions would be in the welfare, Medicaid and Medicare. The proposal also calls for $176 billion in tax cuts over the next six years, including a $500-per-child tax credit, reductions in capital gains taxes and a repeal of a 4.3-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. The Clinton administration has reiterated his claim that plan cuts too deeply into health and social programs for students, children, the elderly and the poor.