Yes, Folks. It's Another Fiscal Year, and Another GOP Budget Blunder

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Pity the poor Republicans. They're doing it to themselves again. On Wednesday, with a flourish of vows from House hardhead Tom DeLay and a banner reading "Stop Robbing Social Security," the GOP launched a $2 million nationwide advertising campaign called "Stop the Raid." It's their latest big idea to finally win a budget fight with Bill Clinton: Accuse Clinton and the Democrats, over and over, of planning to raid the pension system's trust funds to pay for Big Government spending programs. With that $792 billion tax cut languishing on a far-back burner, "Stop the Raid" is the GOP's last bid for America's hearts and minds in 2000 before George W. Bush takes over as message man in the spring. The problem is, we have seen the raiders, and it is the Republicans.

"Under no circumstances will I vote to spend one penny of the Social Security trust fund on anything but Social Security," declaimed DeLay at the launch. Yet just hours later, the Republican-led Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the GOP's current spending plan for next year would siphon at least $18 billion of the fund's surplus. And that, it said, was a conservative estimate. DeLay and the rest of the GOP leadership had little to say about the apparently glaring contradiction; the GOP rank and file sound worried. Under nocircumstances? "That's kind of an absolute statement," fretted Illinois representative Ray LaHood. Added Indiana representative Mark Souder, "If the impression comes out that we're into Social Security but not admitting it, that's almost worse than [spending the money]."

Fellas, it's out. "The Republicans have really put themselves in a box on this," says TIME congressional correspondent John Dickerson. "The CBO numbers are only a projection — the Republicans can still keep their promise. But to do it they'll have to continue to perform these ridiculous contortions that Clinton and the Democrats will have a field day with." Such as budgeting the 2000 census — on the calendar since 1789 — as an "emergency." Such as that plan to create a phantom "13th month" to hide more spending-cap spillover. Such as messing with the $2,000 earned income tax credits that go to the working poor, or asking the states to hand back billions in unused welfare money.

For the White House, this is all a galloping gift horse. Which is not to say that President Clinton is any better at the thrift thing. But this GOP majority is up against a President with a proven gift for making the Republicans look like coldhearted cowards. "Clinton's effectively raiding Social Security as well," says Dickerson. "They're both way over. But Clinton's doing it in ways like clean-water legislation and education that should be very easy for him to demagogue."

Although the new fiscal year actually started Friday, the final negotiations on how to budget for it won't take place for weeks. Clinton has already promised to veto some of the Republicans' proposals; most of the rest is mired in some serious GOP infighting. In a particularly poignant example Thursday, a $2 billion cut in foreign aid favored by the party's fiscal hawks (for the money) and neo-isolationists (for the principle) was dragged down by a third GOP faction that wanted to tack on anti-abortion provisions. While Clinton stands back and drawls about "sitting down and working this out" even as his promised vetoes loom, the GOP is stuck with a vow they can't be seen breaking and a tableful of work they can't seem to get done.

Winning the annual budget fight takes two things: Party unity and good public relations skills. Clinton has them; the Republicans, year after year, have shown themselves inept at both. It's not about whose ideas are better, it's about who presents them better, and who can come out of the scrap smelling like a rose. Tom DeLay started down the road to p.r. disaster a month ago, when the super-whip promised to spend so much that Clinton would have to negotiate "on his knees" to avoid dipping into the Social Security pool for his own programs. Well, they've spent more than that, and the Social Security surplus is indeed in danger. So when Clinton took some time at the microphones Thursday to diss the Republican plan, he was so confident he actually broke into laughter. "It's a familiar dance," says Dickerson. Maybe someday they'll learn how to lead.