Which is not to say anyone besides accountants will notice. The trick is simply to spend $12 billion or so in a phantom month between fiscal 2000 (the year currently being budgeted) and fiscal 2001. That, folks like Specter are hoping, will be enough to cover a few more necessaries without violating the letter of the 1997 agreement. The spirit of that deal lies in tatters, of course; creative lawmakers have already have exempted nearly $28 billion in proposed spending from the caps — largely through "emergency" spending — even with only a 12-month year. That might be too expedient, even for the Beltway. "There are those in both parties who are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’" says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. "Nobody wants to be the one to admit it, but the spending caps are going to have to be raised if Congress is ever going to do its books without all the tricks." After all, even a phantom month has to be paid for eventually; putting off the hurt only magnifies the problem for next time. But without those spending caps intact, the surplus is a shadow of its former self — and that means no tax cut for the GOP, no prescription-drug plan or new teachers for Clinton. No election-year goodies. No wonder they want to delay the tough decisions until 2001.
It used to be you had to be a Roman emperor to change the calendar. Now all it takes is a Senate seat. Locked in a game of fiscal chicken with Bill Clinton, Republican Senate leaders are embracing a time-warping plan to make this year’s budgetary ends meet: They’re adding a 13th month to the upcoming fiscal year. "We all know we engage in a lot of smoke and mirrors," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told the Washington Post on Monday. "But we have to fund education, NIH, worker safety and other programs. It's a question of how we do it." The GOP is desperate not to be the ones to bust those 1997 spending caps (the ones on which all those mammoth surpluses are based) or dip into the Social Security trust fund. But they’re also loath to cut into programs that voters want, programs that Clinton can excoriate them for slicing up. So voilà — the millennium just got a little longer.