Lawmakers plan endgame for wartime spending bill

House-Senate negotiators on the supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina recovery, drought relief and other items are looking to wrap up an agreement by the end of April.

President Bush has been using the recess to lambaste Congress for taking a break when money for the troops is languishing, but a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said staff work began "an hour after Senate passage" last week.

Byrd and House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., are planning to convene a public conference meeting soon after the House returns the week of April 16. The House will likely name conferees that week or the next week; the Senate named its conferees after passage.

There has been little substantive discussion between Democrats and the White House, although Obey said Wednesday his side already has compromised by including a presidential waiver for troop readiness requirements for units to be deployed to Iraq.

"The president needs to stop his huffing and puffing and recognize that he is no longer dealing with a rubber-stamp Congress," Obey said during a forum in his Wisconsin district. "When are we going to hear any talk of reasonable compromise from him?" In an appearance at Fort Irwin, Calif., Wednesday, Bush said "instead of sending an acceptable bill to my desk, they went on spring break."

But he went on to say there are "fine, fine people debating this issue in Washington, D.C." and that he and the Democrats were separated by "honest differences."

House-Senate staff are beginning to clear out some of the legislative underbrush before major decisions are made when lawmakers return. On the military and foreign aid portions of the bills, House and Senate Democrats are not far apart.

But there are trickier issues to resolve on the domestic portions, such as a wide gulf on small-business tax cuts associated with an increase in the minimum wage. A senior congressional aide said there has been discussion about the possibility of splitting off the war-funding from the domestic items and sending a separate war supplemental first to Bush -- with Iraq withdrawal language in place.

That would neutralize Bush's argument that Congress has been sitting on money for the troops while dithering over unrelated items such as money for spinach and peanut farmers. That proposal has not been fully vetted, and it would likely encounter strong opposition since Democrats would lose leverage on items such as drought relief for farmers and ranchers without tying it to funds for troops.

Under one such scenario, if Bush were to veto the first bill over the withdrawal timeline, Democrats could then potentially add the domestic items back once it gets closer to a Pentagon cash crunch in late spring and early summer -- daring him to veto the bill a second time.

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