Budget Bill Squeaks Toward Final Vote

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WASHINGTON: The balanced budget bill cruised to House approval by a 333- 99 vote, dodging last-minute bullets in both the House and Senate and clearing the way for a final vote as early as Thursday. A budget-busting House addendum to boost highway expenditures was rejected, along with a 43 cent increase in cigarette taxes proposed in the Senate to fund health care for the children of the working poor. The White House and GOP leaders lobbied vigorously against the defeated amendments, fearing they would puncture the hard-fought consensus reached after months of negotiations. House Transportation Committee chairman Bud Shuster, a major fan of highway construction, sought to boost the $125 billion budget agreement for highway improvement and construction by about 10 percent. The GOP's top brass joined in the fray, siding with the White House and twisting enough arms to defeat the amendment by a slim 216 - 214 margin. After the House passed the bill, Trent Lott managed to block the cigarette tax proposal by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Edward Kennedy, warning that he would pull the budget-balancing pact off the Senate floor if the changes were approved. "The President is not about to see all that hard work go down the drain, " White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters. Thanks to Lott and Gingrich, he won’t.