WASHINGTON -- Congress is crafting late-session spending and tax bills that could shrink projected budget surpluses by more than a third, even as the fight between Al Gore and George W. Bush over how to use that surplus has become a keystone of their presidential race.
Both Bush and Gore have ambitious plans that would soak up the entire $2.17 trillion surplus -- excluding Social Security -- that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has forecast for the 10 years ending in 2010. Bush emphasizes tax cuts, while Gore prefers spending and debt reduction.
But as the two men talk up their economic plans in these final weeks of the campaign, White House and congressional budget negotiators are finishing a raft of measures that could erode more than $800 billion of those expected surpluses -- or more.
These likely-to-be-enacted bills include legislation that would finance dozens of federal departments and agencies, cut taxes for people saving for retirement and investing in inner cities, boost Medicare reimbursements for health-maintenance organizations and improve health benefits for military retirees.
"You can practically make the whole thing (surplus) go away," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan research group that favors a balanced budget. "People making promises based on a $2.2 trillion surplus ... ought to rein them in."
In an irony of today's world of huge federal surpluses, it is possible that even with the late-session spending splurge, future surplus projections will be the same or even larger than current forecasts.
That is because continued economic growth and unexpected increases in federal revenues could push surplus projections higher and higher, as has happened regularly for the past four years.
Even so, the head-spinning cumulative cost of the bills lawmakers are writing as Congress rushes toward adjournment demonstrates how easily expected surpluses could be drained away, and how little might be left for the next president to use.
The numbers also underline the volatility of surplus projections, which some day might dwindle just as dramatically as they have swelled in recent years.
In addition, the numbers illustrate that even as Republicans try to hold tax cuts and new spending to 10 percent of the 2001 projected surplus of $268 billion, Congress will not come close to that proportion over the entire decade. GOP leaders have confined their pledge to fiscal 2001, which began Oct. 1, with the remaining 90 percent of the year's surplus to be reserved for debt reduction.
Both parties say they will use the 10-year, $2.39 trillion surplus projected from Social Security to pay down the national debt.
No one knows exactly what the late-session bills' cumulative price tag will be, partly because many of the measures are not yet in final form. And since Congress writes spending bills every year covering agencies' budgets, 10-year cost estimates of those bills depend on assumptions -- sometimes partisan in nature -- about how quickly such spending will grow over the decade.
Nonetheless, internal analyses by members of each party conclude that bills will slice many hundreds of billions of dollars off current surplus projections.
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