With Thanksgiving looming, Democrats face major budget roadblocks
House and Senate Democrats headed into the final pre-Thanksgiving crunch facing major roadblocks to their budget plans for both overseas and at home.
Lacking the votes to tie war funding to troop withdrawals, Democrats face the prospect of leaving town without supplying the Pentagon with bridge funding for military operations in Iraq.
Absent a bridge fund, borrowing from the military's core budget to fund the war could impose an unusually harsh strain, forcing measures such as up to 150,000 civilian employee furloughs.
The $471 billion fiscal 2008 Defense measure is the only one of 12 spending bills to be signed into law, with little prospect for any others to be enacted until next month.
"Mr. Speaker, the wheels have finally come off the appropriations process," House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said on the House floor.
Democrats blame GOP obstruction and President Bush's veto threats.
"The last person in the world I will take lectures from on the appropriations process is the gentleman from California,"Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., replied.
Passions ran high during House debate on the bridge fund bill late Wednesday. That bill sets a goal of Dec. 15, 2008, to complete the redeployment of U.S. soldiers from combat zones in Iraq as a condition for its underlying $50 billion to support continued operations.
Facing competing demands from anti-war and moderate Democrats, party leaders were whipping to the end, and won passage on a largely party-line 218-203 vote.
As expected, OMB issued a Statement of Administration Policy Tuesday promising a veto of the bridge fund bill, objecting to its "arbitrary date" for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops, restrictions on the use of troops and limitation of interrogation techniques.
After delaying action on the bill for several hours, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at one point called an emergency meeting between leadership and Progressive Caucus members, where lists of members to target were handed out.
Democrats cleared a key procedural hurdle on the bill, voting to approve the rule for floor debate, 219-190.
"A bridge is built to overcome an obstacle, and the obstacle here is George Bush," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. "America has decided he's wrong, dead wrong. Too many deaths wrong."
Lewis said it was "reckless and irresponsible" to put strings on the funding.
"The majority cannot have it both ways, pretending on the one hand to support our troops while on the other hand, undercutting their ability to prosecute their mission," he said.
Should the Senate take up the bill this week, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said, it was unlikely to clear the magic 60-vote hurdle, leaving the bill hanging over the Thanksgiving recess.
Also Wednesday, the House failed to secure a veto-proof majority on a $51.2 billion Transportation-HUD appropriations bill, which passed 270-147.
The White House threatened a veto because it is $3.2 billion above his request. "This unwarranted spending puts a balanced budget in jeopardy and risks future tax increases," read a Statement of Administration Policy. It was unclear if the Senate would even take up the bill this week or punt final action until December.
Democrats touted the bill's funding for homeless veterans programs, counseling for homeowners hurt by subprime mortgages, and to repair deteriorating bridges, including the collapsed I-35W span in Minneapolis.
Roughly $1.6 billion in home-state earmarks are in limbo as well.
Seeking to draw attention to proposed funding boosts for law-enforcement, climate change research, space exploration and other initiatives, Democrats hoped to also approve this week a $54 billion Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill.
But now that measure -- also subject to a veto threat -- appears likely to fall by the wayside, tied up in a House-Senate dispute over a provision that would shield companies that require English be spoken on the job from discrimination lawsuits.
That amendment to the Senate version by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was approved on a 15-14 vote in the Appropriations Committee, and House Republicans successfully offered a motion to instruct conferees last week to include the provision.
But Congressional Hispanic Caucus members were angered by the 218-186 vote last week, arguing Democratic leaders did not do enough to sway the outcome.
Rather than let the fight again spill out into the open, Democrats postponed a public conference committee meeting on the bill.
And on the Democrats' signature bill, a $150.7 billion Labor-HHS appropriations measure, House Democrats were considered unlikely to override Bush's veto when that vote comes Thursday.
That measure is $9.8 billion above Bush's request, not counting additional future-year spending for education and public broadcasting.
The Bush budget would cut $3.6 billion from current Labor-HHS spending, however, and some senior Republicans are beginning to admit there will need to be an eventual compromise on that bill and others.
While blaming Democrats for setting up a "colossal train wreck" and a "beyond dysfunctional" process this year, Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg, R-N.H., was realistic.
"Clearly the president's number on Labor-HHS is too low, and their number is too high," Gregg said, adding that Bush's demand to offset a $4 billion increase in veterans' funding was not viable.
But Gregg, ranking member on the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, was not optimistic about the outcome.
"People of good intentions and substance should sit down in a room and work it out. And so far we've seen no movement in that direction and it doesn't appear we're setting up to accomplish that even in December," he said.