The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Republicans said yesterday they would try passing a spending bill that falls short of President Clinton's demands for liberalizing immigration laws. Their plans drew an immediate renewal of a veto threat from the White House.
The $37.5 billion measure, covering the departments of State, Commerce and Justice, is the next to last of the 13 annual bills for the new fiscal year still being held up by controversies. GOP leaders hope Congress will finish its budget work so it can adjourn for the year by the weekend.
In response to Clinton's insistence that restrictions affecting hundreds of thousands of immigrants be eased, Republicans included a provision for judicial review for 400,000 immigrants who have been in the United States since the mid-1980s and have been embroiled in disputes over their legal status.
GOP lawmakers also would ease restrictions on about 600,000 close relatives of permanent residents.
Clinton wants a far broader approach affecting 1 million to 2 million people, favored by many Hispanic activists, including amnesty for all illegal immigrants who arrived before 1986. He also would allow permanent residence for political refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti.
The GOP decision seemed to be steering Congress into a veto battle with Clinton less than two weeks before an election in which Hispanics form a crucial voting bloc.
"The short answer to the question - and the question is whether the president would veto Commerce-State-Justice - the answer is yes," said White House spokesman Elliott Deiringer.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., defended the GOP's decision, telling a reporter, "To just give blanket amnesty to millions of illegal aliens and undermine the legal system, we think is not wise."
But Lott also said Republicans would be willing to consider further immigration law changes before Congress leaves town.
Republican aides said a veto fight would play well with their party's conservative base, which is strongly against amnesty for illegal aliens.
In a written statement Wednesday, Clinton said he would veto the entire bill "if these issues are not resolved." But speaking to reporters, Clinton sounded more accommodating, saying, "I hope we can do more."
Congressional Republicans said they doubted he would veto the entire measure over the issue.
In other disputes in the bill, bargainers agreed to provide $618 million for coastal conservation programs, with about $150 million set aside for states that have offshore oil production.
Republicans also rejected an administration request for $25 million to help the Justice Department pay the costs of the government's lawsuit against the tobacco industry. But they also dropped a provision that would have blocked transfers of money to the department from other agencies without congressional approval.
Republicans rebuffed Clinton's attempt to get a provision that would expand hate-crime laws to protect victims targeted because of their sexual orientation. The president has wanted such a measure, but stopped short of threatening to veto the entire bill if it was not included.
On another remaining spending bill - a $350 billion measure financing education, labor and social programs - lawmakers and aides from both parties said they had agreed to renew Clinton's plan to subsidize the hiring of thousands of school teachers.
The provision would let local officials use 25 percent of the federal money for other education purposes, satisfying Republicans who have insisted on community control of such aid. The agreement was similar to a compromise reached last year.
But the two sides still had not agreed on the exact amount of money, officials said. Clinton requested $1.75 billion, while Republicans have offered something close to that.
Amid the flurry of late activity, lawmakers tried tucking scores of home-district provisions into the bills.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there were 190 such requests and that leaders were hoping to pare the final list to no more than 40.
Among those under consideration was one measure by Stevens himself that would delay government action that might limit pollock fishing in Alaska to protect the endangered Steller sea lion. And Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., was trying to scale back National Park Service plans to phase out most snowmobiling in national parks.