Today's Papers

Congress Takes an Omnibus, Dubya Calls a Cab

The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times lead with the final act of the 106th Congress last night–its approval of a massive spending package that provides funds for hiring teachers and repairing schools, for medical research, for Medicare and Medicaid providers, and for a tax incentive program geared at distressed urban and rural areas. The omnibus bill also “establishes procedures for an estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants to become legal U.S. residents” (WP). The New York Times, which fronts the legislative juggernaut, leads local, with proposed changes to the structure of bilingual education in New York City’s public schools, and off-leads with President-elect Bush’s arguments yesterday for implementing the broad, $1.3 trillion tax cut that he had proposed during his campaign.

The papers offer wildly differing estimates of the congressional bill’s girth. The LAT calls it a “$1.8-trillion package,” the WP says the package provides a total of “$634 billion for all government departments and agencies through next September,” while the NYT weighs the bill in at a trim $450 billion. The papers also give divergent numbers for the bill’s provisions for legalizing immigrants: While the WP says 400,000 will benefit, the NYT says the package will effectively legalize 700,000. What gives? Either way, all coverage agrees that the bill had enough in it for both sides to claim victory, though the LAT headline stresses a White House win: “CONGRESS PASSES A FINAL BUDGET HAILED BY CLINTON.” According to the WP, Clinton praised the deal’s “dramatic new investments in our nation’s schools” as the topper of his administration’s “eight years of commitment to education.” And Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert lauded the inclusion of the “New Markets” tax incentive program, which he claimed would “help the most distressed areas in America get a piece of economic prosperity” (WP).

All papers agree that the budget deal marks the final fruit of lengthy negotiations in a contentious and beleaguered Congress, one whose tenure began with Clinton’s impeachment. The bill’s passing was stalled until only recently when a compromise was reached between the White House and an Alaskan senator who had protested the limits in the bill on Alaskan pollock and cod fishing–strictures proposed by the Clinton administration to protect endangered sea lions. A compromise could not be reached, however, on a proposal to help Amtrak fund $10 billion worth of bonds to build high-speed railways. The WP reports that the protracted negotiations on the bill caused it to swell as it “became a magnet” for a range of the members’ pet projects. It goes on to quote the Senate Budget Committee Chairman on the timing of pork: “This year, as much as any other year, shows that if you wait to do major bills right at the end, you end up spending much more.”

The NYT off-lead notes that Bush’s justification for the dramatic tax cut–slowing manufacturing and automobile sales, skittish financial markets, high energy prices–comes just a day after House Speaker Hastert endorsed the advisability of a more incremental series of tax reforms. Yesterday, though, Hastert retrofitted his comments, supporting Bush’s plan, but adding that it may be “easier to enact a bit at a time.”

The NYT off-lead, and WP and LAT front-pagers, detail other Bush transition maneuvers yesterday, including his meeting with centrist Democratic Sen. John Breaux, and signals that the president-elect’s first Cabinet appointee will be … perfunctory drumroll please … Gen. Colin Powell as secretary of state. Bush was rumored to have his sights on Breaux for a Cabinet spot, but yesterday said that the Louisiana centrist planned to stay in the evenly split Senate. According to the WP, concerned Democrats viewed the well-choreographed meeting as a sign that Bush is following a “Ronald Reagan model” of garnering conservative Democrats’ support for GOP programs. The coverage also reports that Bush is likely to name Texas Supreme Court Justice Alberto Gonzales as his White House counsel.

The Powell appointment, the NYT speculates, is doubly reassuring, both to foreign leaders who would question Bush’s foreign policy experience and to black voters in the U.S. who felt disenfranchised in the election. Anticipating the Powell nod, the WP fronts a detailed profile of the retired four-star general that concurs with the NYT coverage but also explains how Powell’s “reluctance to use or threaten to use America’s military might” may “re-ignite the quarter-century-old debate over how and when the United States should exercise its power.”

The NYT goes above the fold with a report on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting in Cuba with Fidel Castro, during which the two leaders assessed the state of their strained post-Soviet economic relations, what the Times poetically calls their countries’ “old debts and dashed dreams.” During a press conference yesterday, Putin repeatedly tried to “put his visit in an unthreatening,” post-Cold War context, characterizing the talks as part of an effort to salve Cuba’s economic wounds, not to re-ally Cuba and Russia against the United States. The “subtext” of Putin’s comments, says the NYT, was not Cuban-Russian relations but Russia’s economic and security relations with the U.S.

In yesterday’s other bloated deal of note, Sen.-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted an $8 million advance from Simon & Schuster for a memoir of her tumultuous years as first lady. A source close to Clinton claimed the size of the advance as one befitting the “the most famous woman in the world.” The same source promised that the book would contain a “dignified discussion” of Mrs. Clinton’s marriage and the scandal surrounding her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky–now apparently demoted to “ex-most famous woman in the world.”