House and Senate appropriators hope to complete all of the fiscal 2006 spending bills by the end of the week, meaning Congress would avoid a big "omnibus" package for the first time since 2001. Bills yet to be negotiated would provide funding for military construction and veterans benefits; the Pentagon; and transportation, housing, health, labor and education programs.
Some spending bills are a bit fatter than expected, but non-security discretionary spending is on course to drop by 0.3 percent from last year's total -- the first such dip since 1987. Dozens of government programs would be eliminated, including 29 in the bill that covers the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor.
The list includes rural health care and nutrition initiatives, prison literacy programs and technology training centers. House and Senate negotiators have yet to bridge several key funding gaps, including those of the National Institutes of Health and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The latter is a priority for many Northern lawmakers, given that heating bills are expected to spike this winter.
Although many Democrats say the cuts are excessive, one of the biggest unresolved controversies has nothing to do with money: It is the fate of an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ban cruel treatment of military detainees. McCain had added his measure to the Senate version of the defense appropriations bill. But the White House has threatened to veto any legislation that includes McCain's amendment, saying it would impose too many restrictions.
Appropriators in both chambers are not at all pleased, especially given McCain's history of antagonizing spending committees by wading into policy matters. Committee aides are circulating a list of McCain's comments to that effect, including an assertion last year that "the responsibilities of authorizers and appropriators are expected to be distinct." House appropriators want the amendment attached to the defense authorization bill, which is moving through the Senate this week but won't be finished until next year.
As part of their austerity efforts, GOP leaders vowed to avoid another omnibus bill. Such packages are thrown together at the last minute and act like flypaper for dubious spending provisions. But they are also handy devices for tying up loose ends, such as the additional hurricane and avian flu aid that Congress wants to deliver before going home for the year.
House and Senate leaders may be considering the defense bill as a potential omnibus package if they need one, but appropriators are trying to thwart that effort.
Democrats Press Drive for Troop Withdrawal
Democrats will up the ante this week on Iraq. In the House, the 69-member "Out of Iraq" caucus is circulating a petition to bring to the floor a measure requiring the president to begin troop withdrawals by Oct. 1, 2006. Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.), the group's founder, predicted broad support as more members "see the handwriting on the wall and are trying to figure out how to say 'exit strategy.' "
The Senate is expected today to consider a Democratic amendment to the defense authorization bill that would require President Bush to submit regular reports on the war, along with a plan for withdrawing troops.
It may have struck a nerve. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) offered a weaker alternative that extended the due date for the first White House report on military operations to 90 days, from the Democrats' 30 days and struck the requirement for a troop-withdrawal plan.
"People have said for a long time that the Democrats do not have a position when it comes to Iraq," said Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the Senate's number two Democrat. "The wording of this amendment makes it clear that we have a position, and the position is this: 2006 will not just be another year in the war in Iraq."