WASHINGTON -- Chalk up another effect of the sizzling economy: The federal budget is so flush that there should be plenty of money for lawmakers' election-year spending demands without fear of dipping into Social Security reserves.
Worries about eroding Social Security surpluses limited the spending President Clinton and Congress approved last year. Now, budget surplus projections look so big that Republicans could give Clinton every extra penny he wants -- about $20 billion more than they prefer -- and still not fret about draining Social Security's trust funds, which both parties have put off-limits in an election year.
As congressional committees resume writing fiscal 2001 spending bills this week, it is clear Clinton won't get everything he wants. But Republicans seem likely to pierce the spending limits they promised in the budget they pushed through Congress last month, either by ignoring them or using accounting gimmicks.
Fiscal conservatives concede that without the pressure of leaving Social Security alone, they can do little to stop a bipartisan, election-year spending binge.
''There is a handful of us who will throw our bodies in front of the train, but there will be little hope we will slow that train down,'' said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz.
Many analysts predict that official estimates to be updated this summer will project a surplus of $40 billion or more, excluding Social Security, in fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1. That is easily enough to accommodate the extra spending desired by Clinton and many lawmakers of both parties.
The plentiful cash should help Republicans achieve their goal: cast themselves as frugal alternatives to Clinton and Democrats, then reach the compromises needed to quickly finish the 13 annual spending bills for various government operations so lawmakers can go home early for re-election campaigns.
The sheer amount of money -- and the lack of the Social Security factor this year -- is also a tempting kitty.
''With all this money, it's an automobile without brakes,'' said Marshall Wittmann, who analyzes Congress for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
At issue is the one-third of the $1.8 trillion budget that finances programs from soil conservation to space shots -- everything but automatic federal payments such as Social Security benefits and interest to people holding Treasury bills.
Republicans want to hold such spending in 2001 to $605 billion, while Clinton proposes $625 billion. Within those sums, the GOP is earmarking $4 billion more than the president for defense, while he seeks $24 billion more than Republicans for domestic and foreign aid programs.
Democrats say Republicans would underfund education, environment and other programs in their drive for a tax cut of at least $150 billion over five years.
''The only place you can look for more money is to do away with those tax cuts,'' Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., told Republicans at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting last week.
But even if the tax cuts are enacted -- and most are certain to be vetoed by Clinton -- there would probably still be enough money to pay for extra spending, either from the surplus or by using well-worn gimmicks like delaying some spending into the early days of fiscal 2002.
Underlining the widespread belief that more money will be found, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told his panel last week not to worry.
''I don't think we ought to say this (difference between Clinton and Republicans) is an impossible cliff we are running up against and won't get to the top of,'' he said.
Without the Social Security issue, many conservatives are searching for new ways to hold down spending.
Some are considering a push to also put Medicare surpluses politically out of bounds. That could have political appeal similar to Social Security because the health insurance program for the elderly also faces demographic pressures from the approaching retirement of baby boomers.
But Medicare's trust fund surpluses are much smaller than Social Security's, averaging a bit over $20 billion annually. That would have some impact next year, but little over the long run.
As a result, conservatives are still searching for ways to keep the pressure on spending.
''We haven't done as good a job as we need to arguing why we don't want to increase spending in its own right,'' said Rep. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa.
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