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.
"I think the Democrats in Congress will do everything they can to avoid a shutdown," said Scott Lilly, senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress and a former staffer on the House Appropriations Committee. "I don't think the White House wants to take that risk. I don't think anyone does."
Still, the standoff will hold up the legislation, and that is something Democrats had long criticized Republicans for when they controlled Congress.
The House completed work on its versions of the spending bills this summer. Votes on the four bills passed by the Senate so far showed Republican senators willing to break with the president.
The Senate Homeland Security bill, which passed by a vote of 89 to 4 before the August recess, includes an additional $3 billion for border security and restores $1.2 billion in administration cuts to emergency preparedness funding. Earlier this month, the Senate passed a military construction and Veterans' Affairs spending bill that exceeded the president's request by $4 billion with additional money for veterans' health care. A $34 billion foreign-operations spending bill, which passed 81 to 12, includes $5.1 billion to combat HIV/AIDS, $1.35 billion for U.N. peacekeeping missions and $460 million for family-planning programs.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed a $106 billion Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill with a vote of 88 to 7. The bill adds $6 billion to the president's request, including $1 billion for bridge upgrades. The housing portion of the bill provides $700 million to help low-income seniors and $75 million for homeless veterans.
"There are far too many returning servicemen and women who come back and are without housing. This [bill] is a start on dealing with this serious problem that I know the VA and HUD are familiar with," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). While most Senate Republicans have been voting for the spending, House GOP leaders say they will back a Bush veto. "Earlier this year, House Republicans pledged to uphold the President's veto of any bill that contains excessive spending. . . . We'll continue to uphold that pledge," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) said in a statement. "Republican-led pro-growth policies have strengthened our economy and placed a balanced budget within reach, and we'll work to ensure those policies stay in place."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.