Bush signs Defense bill

The $471 billion Pentagon spending bill President Bush signed into law Tuesday contains $6.4 billion in domestic spending he did not request, including $3 billion for displaced Louisiana homeowners.

Yet it elicited barely a hint of protest either by Bush or his Republican backers in Congress.

That is a remarkable feat, given Bush's veto the same day of a $151 billion Labor-HHS spending bill and his repeated opposition to Democratic plans to exceed his budget request by about $22 billion overall.

"It probably wouldn't have gotten done any other way," a Senate Democratic aide said, particularly the Louisiana funding.

In a speech Tuesday in Indiana, Bush devoted two sentences to his signature on the Defense bill.

"This isn't a perfect bill; it includes some unnecessary spending. But this morning in the Oval Office I signed that bill to make sure our military has the full support of the federal government," Bush said.

Democrats included the Louisiana and other funding as part of the continuing resolution they added to the Defense bill in conference. The biggest piece is $3 billion to alleviate a shortfall in the "Road Home" program to help Louisiana residents affected by 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The account will be empty at the end of this year without the funding boost, backers say.

The rest consists of $2.9 billion to replenish Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief coffers drained from previous hurricane aid efforts and needed to address California wildfires, as well as $500 million for the Interior Department and Forest Service to combat the wildfires.

That funding was considered less controversial and probably would have been requested eventually by Bush, a Democratic aide said.

Senate GOP conservatives, who chafed in private for much of the day on Tuesday that Democrats included the domestic funding but nothing for border security or a bridge fund to continue Iraq war operations, ultimately backed down from challenging the items on a point of order.

The White House weighed in with Senate GOP leaders against raising any procedural hurdles, aides said.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., called the Road Home funds "another major step towards honoring the promises we made to the Gulf Coast region," and it enjoyed bipartisan support from the Louisiana delegation.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., acknowledged opposition from the White House and that it might not have made it through had it not been attached to the Defense measure. "That's probably why they did it," Vitter said.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona said it boiled down to whether to quickly send Bush the Defense bill, which the administration had been pressing for.

"We all did put up a fight, but you have to deal with the bigger question: funding for the military and having to swallow this stuff or not. And our judgment at the end of the day, although it's a very difficult decision, was that the blackmail that the Democrats engaged in could work that time because it was so important to fund the military," Kyl said.

He added that the move might set a precedent: "They could try to do the same thing again, take another hostage, and that's not a good thing."

Democrats might have another shot as they might have to take up another CR before the current one expires Dec. 14 if there is no resolution of the overall top-line funding dispute by then.

They will also have to pass a bridge fund to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as funding is expected to run dry in January if Democrats don't act.

Democrats have used war funding as leverage for their spending initiatives, adding $17 billion in unrequested funding to the spring Iraq supplemental.

A senior House Democratic aide allowed that their more recent success in attaching unrelated spending to the "must-pass" Defense bill could provide a glimpse of things to come in December if Bush continues to insist on his budget limit.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., declined to comment on the next moves should the stalemate continue. But he said the fact that Bush is willing to sign the huge Defense bill despite unrelated items but veto a Labor-HHS bill with much smaller proposed increases shows fiscal discipline is not the real issue.

"You're taking his actions too seriously. They are not logical, substantive objections," he said, adding that Bush quietly signed the Defense bill so as not to draw attention to it.

"Anytime that you sign a $39 billion increase in one bill and then pretend you're saving the Republic by blocking $6 billion in another, it shows you the whole operation is phony," Obey said.

House Democratic leaders have scheduled a Labor-HHS veto override vote for Thursday.

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