Bush Enlists Cabinet Officials In Fight Against New Spending

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The White House in recent days told nearly a dozen Cabinet secretaries to send letters to Capitol Hill rejecting Democrats' proposed new funds for their agencies, escalating a confrontation between lawmakers and President Bush over domestic spending priorities.

The Democratic Congress is considering 2008 spending bills that increase funding for politically popular programs including health care for veterans, education, medical research and infrastructure improvements. But Bush, who is under pressure from fiscal conservatives, has promised to veto nearly all the new spending.

The dispute centers on $22 billion in spending Democrats added to the president's nearly $1 trillion request. Only four of the dozen bills have passed the Senate so far, ensuring that the spending package will not reach the president's desk by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

Yesterday, the Senate began work on a defense policy bill dominated by debate on the Iraq war, and today it will focus on legislation that would grant the District of Columbia representation in the House. The chamber will then turn to a $459 billion non-Iraq defense spending bill, aides say, but the schedule for the remaining seven bills is still under discussion, with Democrats divided on strategy for moving the bills quickly. Talks are underway on interim spending legislation that would extend the budget deadline into November, a stopgap Democrats have derided Republicans for using in recent years.

In an unusual approach, the White House told Cabinet officials to personally push Congress to adopt the president's budget plans. The carefully scripted letters warn congressional decision-makers that failure to support the president's reduced spending proposals would delay the bills, harming agency operations and the "integrity of the budget process."

"I am confident the [administration] amount set for the Department of Health and Human Services will enable us to successfully accomplish our mission," even though that amount is tens of millions of dollars less than Congress proposes, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt told House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) in a letter received Aug. 31. "As public servants, we owe it to American taxpayers to complete our work responsibly."

The campaign prompted at least one angry response, from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). On Sept. 5, Byrd wrote to White House budget director Jim Nussle complaining about a letter he received from Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. "According to the Government Accountability Office, the department is failing to achieve its mission. Yet the President continues to try to secure the homeland on the cheap," Byrd wrote.

"The Secretary's letter raises our shared desire to complete the bill by October 1, 2007. Regrettably, the President's veto threat will not facilitate that outcome."

Bush has dismissed congressional proposals as "the same old tax-and-spend policy that the Democrats have tried before."

Democrats argue that the extra spending restores only a fraction of Bush-era budget cuts to domestic programs and boosts some that have gone without increases for years. The extra $22 billion includes $4 billion for veterans' health care and administrative services; $2 billion for port security; $3 billion for education; nearly $1 billion for sewage and water treatment improvements; and money for local law enforcement, housing for the poor, and road and bridge upgrades.

"Last year, the Republican-dominated Congress was $55 billion over what the president wanted. He signed off on that. There were no lectures given about increasing taxes or that it was the people's money, not the government's money, not a single lecture given about that," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Now, we're $21 billion over what the president wants and we get all these lectures all the time, 'This isn't your money. It's the taxpayers' money,' even though all we're trying to do is restore what he's taken from this place."

Neither party expects to repeat the budget battles of a decade ago between the Republican Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton, which led to a partial government shutdown. Both sides fear the chaos and embarrassment that resulted.

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