Washington In a sharp escalation of their pre-election budget showdown, President Clinton vetoed a measure Monday allowing members of Congress a pay raise after top House Republicans shot down a tentative deal on a huge spending bill for school, labor and social programs.
The tit-for-tat seemed to increase the possibility that the escalating late-session budget battle, mostly invisible to the public until now, might influence next Tuesday's elections for control of the White House and Congress. It also made it likelier that lawmakers will have to return after Election Day for a lame-duck session.
"This is an open declaration of war against Congress," Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said before the veto, which White House officials had been dangling as a threat for several days.
GOP leaders in the House ratcheted up the battle earlier Monday, rejecting a tentative accord between their negotiators and White House officials on a $350 billion education and social spending measure. Their chief objection was a provision regarding proposed regulations on workplace safety long sought by unions and opposed by some business groups.
"We're not going to get pushed out of town with a bad deal," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters. "You call it a stalemate. I call it fighting for the American people to get good legislation for them."
The GOP's willingness to prolong the budget battle underlined that Republican leaders seem to believe their party's prospects will not be hurt and may well be helped by keeping Congress in session rather than striking deals with Democrats and the White House that might rankle core constituencies.
In the hours before Clinton's veto, negotiations were under way between GOP and White House aides on the ergonomics provision. It was unclear how the veto would affect those talks.
White House officials and some Democrats, who had appeared ready to declare victory in the budget war and leave town for the elections, expressed dismay when Republicans leaders turned down the compromise on the labor-education spending measure.
But looking to score points, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., accused Republicans of bowing to special interests and said, "This is not a do-nothing Congress, this is a dysfunctional Congress."
The bill Clinton vetoed a $33 billion measure financing the Treasury Department contained a $3,800 pay increase for lawmakers, boosting their annual salaries to $145,100. It also contains a GOP-sought phaseout of the 3 percent telephone tax, and finances the White House's own operations.
The bill would have become law if Clinton had not vetoed it by midnight Monday.
The veto also infuriated Republicans because after adding $348 million earlier this month to satisfy Clinton's demands, Democrats had said he would sign it.
"You can't deal with people who break their word," said House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.
Even before his veto, Clinton argued that Republicans were acting before sending him a minimum-wage increase that he can sign or meeting his demands for school construction and other programs.
"The bill itself is all right, but there's something that strikes me as a little wrong in taking care of the Congress and the White House when we haven't taken care of the American people," said Clinton.
GOP leaders have put a $1 increase in the $5.15 hourly minimum wage in a $240 billion, 10-year tax bill. But Clinton has threatened to veto the tax measure because he says it is too generous to health maintenance organizations and doesn't do enough for school construction or people's health-care costs.
In the last 20 years, Congress has held lame-duck sessions four times: for Clinton's impeachment by the House in 1998, trade in 1994, and budget issues in 1980 and 1982.
As the Oct. 1 start of fiscal year 2001 came and went with several must-pass spending bills incomplete, Republicans have found the budget fight has had little impact on a public distracted by the presidential race and a Middle East flare-up.
In addition, they say, the battling between Congress and Clinton only enhances GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush's message that he would end partisan backbiting in Washington.
"To my knowledge, it's particularly not hurting Republican candidates," said Stevens. "They tell me their numbers have come up in this process" of the long-running budget fight.