Dems, Bush prepare for battle over spending levels

Democrats continued to push spending bills Wednesday in defiance of President Bush, who met with House Republicans who reiterated their pledge to sustain vetoes of fiscal 2008 appropriations bills that exceed his budget requests.

"I submitted a budget to the Congress that sets priorities -- no greater priority, by the way, than defending the homeland against attack. It's a budget that keeps taxes low so the economy continues to grow," Bush said after the meeting. "Now, there's an alternative budget that has been presented in the Congress by the Democrats, which will increase spending by a significant amount, in our view, and will require tax raises in order to get spending. We don't think that's right for the country."

Bush and his new choice for Office of Management and Budget director, former House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, are staring down Democrats in Congress over their decision to exceed his $933 billion budget request by about $23 billion.

Bush has signaled acceptance of some additions for veterans' health, but he has threatened to veto extra spending for homeland security, climate change, clean water programs, social services, education, housing and law enforcement.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called the Republicans' White House meeting "a transparent attempt to score political points."

"Republicans lost control of Congress because they blindly followed the president's misguided budget policies that created $3 trillion of debt while failing to adequately invest in America's priorities," Hoyer said in a statement.

Democrats have taken particular relish in Tuesday's nomination of Nussle, who they will be tangling with later this year, arguing he helped to craft the "fiscally irresponsible" budgets of the past six years.

In recent weeks, the spending issue has overshadowed the war in Iraq. But Democrats are promising another fight on that issue, as they will begin work next week on a $459.3 billion fiscal 2008 Defense spending bill.

Just as Iraq and domestic spending collided in the debate over the spring war supplemental, Bush and Nussle could find themselves negotiating with Democrats simultaneously on those issues this fall.

House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., plans to take up the measure in subcommittee next Thursday and is considering attaching similar strings to the U.S. involvement in Iraq that he has previously pushed.

That measure will be on the floor in July.

In September, when Gen. David Petraeus gives his assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq, Congress will also take up Bush's request for another $141.7 billion for operations there and in Afghanistan.

Murtha said he wants to put together the two defense measures as one package in conference on the regular fiscal 2008 Pentagon bill, which will likely not wrap up until September.

That could provide significant leverage to push restrictions on troop deployments that Bush was able to remove from the earlier Iraq supplemental.

"September is going to be what it's all about. That's what the whole thing is going to come down to," Murtha said. "I tell you our guys are so upset, the public is so upset, they want this war over with. Every place I go people tell me that. Kids in the hospital tell me that ... the public is there, the military is there, the military families are turned out, so this administration is going to have to compromise at some point."

Given the magnitude of that combined package, it could also serve as a lever to extract additional domestic spending in final negotiations if Bush's vetoes are upheld. Democrats could also hold back the popular Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill, which passed on a 409-2 vote in the House last week, as a vehicle, but at this early stage they are content to move bills in "regular order" and demonstrate the importance of their individual contents.

The House advanced a $31.6 billion fiscal 2008 Energy and Water spending bill that boosts Bush's budget request by $1.1 billion.

Democrats are working on including hundreds of water resources and energy research projects, including those requested by the Bush administration, which will be highly popular with members on both sides of the aisle.

With "reducing our dependence on foreign oil" a bipartisan refrain, the measure also seeks to address climate change and record-high gas prices by increasing funds for renewable energy technologies and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the measure will not move to final passage until July, it also promises to test Republicans' pledge to deliver a veto-proof majority.

A vast gulf between the House and Senate exists on nuclear weapons capabilities, however, with the House proposing to slash funds for what it argues is a relic of the Cold War.

That does not sit well with Senate Energy and Water Appropriations ranking member Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who looks after his states weapons' labs with an almost fatherly interest.

On Wednesday night, the House took up a $34.2 billion State-Foreign Operations bill, which is $700 million below Bush's request.

Nonetheless, Bush says he will veto the bill over language aimed at loosening restrictions on aid to international groups that perform abortions.

A bipartisan amendment by Reps. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., was expected to try and strike the language, which could ease the path for that otherwise highly popular bill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is taking up a $152 billion fiscal 2008 Labor-Health and Human Services bill that is roughly $10 billion above Bush's request and includes a scaled-down version of embryonic stem cell legislation he vetoed Wednesday.

The stem cell language could serve as another lever with the White House on extra education and social services spending, but the House and Senate are so far apart on the individual contents of their bills that it will take some time to resolve.

But after two years of cuts and freezes in popular programs -- and no earmarks -- many Republicans might be reluctant to oppose the measure in the end.

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