Republicans grapple with spending cuts

Budget pressures continue to bedevil Republicans, as both chambers mull spending cuts while the White House readies an emergency request for $7 billion to gird against a possible avian influenza outbreak.

That package, to be sent to Congress Tuesday, will not be offset, unlike billions in hurricane aid for the Gulf Coast region.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who hails from hurricane-ravaged Mississippi, is signaling that the Bush administration's $17.1 billion reallocation request from previous appropriations might not be enough.

The new hurricane request contains money for some rebuilding projects that will take years, while a separate $2.3 billion offset package finds nearly one-quarter of its savings -- $534 million -- from unspent wildfire suppression funds. This is unlikely to sit well with Western Republicans as fire season looms next summer.

Senate debate began Monday on a $39 billion deficit reduction bill that has moderates wary of provisions like opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.

Republicans like Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico -- who is running for re-election in a Democratic-leaning district that is among the nation's poorest -- are under pressure to oppose a larger $50 billion spending cut plan next week that trims low-income programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

Adding to moderates' woes, House GOP leaders are preparing to bring a $70 billion tax cut reconciliation bill to the floor as early as the following week.

That measure will contain popular provisions such as a patch to keep more middle-income taxpayers from falling under the Alternative Minimum Tax, originally designed to ensure that wealthier taxpayers are subject to taxation.

But the legislation also will extend expiring lower rates on capital gains and dividends, and as they head home for Thanksgiving, moderates fear the perception that the GOP-led Congress is cutting taxes for the rich right after cutting spending for the poor.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., plans to meet with moderates this week to gauge support for the tax bill. But it is clear that with the session winding down, Thomas and GOP leaders want to ensure final passage of a tax-cut measure before the year is out.

Congress also will be working to enact the hurricane-relief bill and rescission packages in the coming weeks.

The White House sought to disassociate the issues in its announcements Friday. But it is clear that both the $17.1 billion reallocation and $2.3 billion offset packages were driven by conservative discontent about $62.3 billion already appropriated.

Only $20 billion of that has been allocated thus far, and the new $17 billion request would be shifted from remaining balances. All told, Cochran's home state is promised roughly $12 billion. But Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is pushing for $19 billion, plus an additional $8.8 billion over the next two years for flood insurance, health care, water and sewer infrastructure and other costs.

On Monday, Cochran said the Bush proposal "should be viewed as a starting point for the reassessment of needs in our state for disaster relief," pledging support for Barbour's efforts "to ensure that our state is treated fairly by the federal government. I expect some changes [in the Bush plan] will be made by the Congress but it is hard to predict what those changes will be."

Meanwhile, Westerners are clearly unhappy about aspects of the rescission package, which trims almost $800 million from accounts in recent Interior spending bills, including the fiscal 2006 measure.

About one-third of the total rescissions would fall on natural resources and environment programs, largely from wildfire suppression plus $166 million from state clean water infrastructure funds.

"This is unacceptable to me. It impacts California dramatically," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Millions more are cut from earmarked National Park Service accounts, including White House requests, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton agreed to share some of the pain by sacrificing $2.5 million for her favored landowner incentive and private stewardship programs.

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