Democrats Tighten Spending in Latest Version of Bill

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

Congressional Democrats completed work last night on a sprawling, $515.7 billion domestic spending bill that would shave billions from cherished Democratic programs but would challenge President Bush's tough line on domestic spending with billions of dollars for added veterans care, border security and Southeastern drought relief.

The bill also includes $31 billion designated for the war in Afghanistan. Democrats expect that billions more will be added for the war in Iraq when the bill reaches the Senate later this week.

Democratic aides said the aim is to win the president's signature by week's end, when Congress hopes to adjourn for the year. To do so, Democrats made scores of concessions, pulling hundreds of millions of dollars from the National Institutes of Health, special education and other programs they had said deserved far more than Bush was willing to spend. They also dropped a challenge to the president's policy of prohibiting aid to international family-planning groups that offer abortions.

But Democrats did not exactly toe Bush's line on spending. The final bill seemingly meets the president's limit on domestic spending, then adds $11.2 billion in "emergency" spending -- much of it long-expected. Some $3.7 billion is earmarked for veterans health care and other veterans benefits, although the bill leaves it to the president to decide whether those funds will be released.

Another $7.5 billion in "emergency" funding includes $3 billion that Republicans -- and many Democrats -- have sought to beef up border security. About $2.4 billion would go toward the administration's request for State Department foreign operations. Other funds would go to drought relief for Southeastern farmers; the badly stretched Women, Infants and Children federal nutrition program; the rebuilding of the collapsed Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis; low-income heating assistance; wildfire suppression; and assistance to World Trade Center rescue workers suffering from health problems.

By designating the veterans assistance as subject to the president's approval, congressional Democrats are hoping to get around White House demands that the $3.7 billion be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget. The Democrats were bolstered late Friday by letters from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Disabled Veterans of America, all of which asked Bush to accept the additional funds without cutting elsewhere.

"It's the president's call," said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of veterans funding. "But I can't imagine the president disappointing veterans that deeply."

He added: "I think veterans from all over the country will be watching his decision very closely."

White House officials last night appeared optimistic about the bill's prospects. They noted that at first glance, the Democrats appear to have given in to most of the White House's policy demands, removing language Bush had objected to on family planning aid, linking federal wage rates more closely to union wage rules, and banning the Internal Revenue Service's use of private debt collectors.

Designating the additional veterans funding as subject to Bush's discretion "is a compromise," said a White House aide. "I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

But White House officials declined to say whether Bush would sign the measure until they had a chance to comb through what will be a phone-book-size document.

"We're going to be reviewing the bill tonight, but we're encouraged by some positive developments in the bill," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "We're encouraged by the policy changes especially. From that perspective, it's in decent shape."

To shave $22 billion from the initial spending bills that passed the House, Democratic budget writers had to deliver painful cuts, both to Democratic priorities and to the president's. The NIH's budget was trimmed $760 million from the level approved by Congress but vetoed by Bush. The Centers for Disease Control lost $240 million from the vetoed level. Education aid for disadvantaged students lost $280 million. Special education lost $250 million from the vetoed level.

Renewable energy, nuclear waste cleanup, clean water assistance, and community development block grants each lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

But other areas will get funding well above Bush's request. Medical research into diseases including Alzheimer's, cancer, Parkinson's disease and diabetes would get $607 million more than the president wanted. Community health centers and other programs reaching out to the uninsured and underinsured would get $1 billion more than in Bush's budget. Rural health care would get an additional $147 million.

Some special education programs, teacher quality grants, after-school programs and Head Start would share in $767 million in additional funding, while Pell Grants and other higher education assistance programs would get $1.7 billion more than Bush requested. State and local law enforcement as well and homeland security grants would be increased by $3 billion.

The massive bill is expected to come to a vote in the House tomorrow. The Senate is likely to add as much as $70 billion for the war in Iraq before a vote Thursday. A final House vote is likely on Friday.

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