GOP leaders confront fights over supplemental spending bill

With the House Appropriations Committee markup of the fiscal 2002 supplemental spending bill now set for Wednesday morning, the clock soon will begin ticking for GOP leaders to resolve several behind-the-scenes, intraparty squabbles that could cost them crucial votes on the floor.

Although House leaders repeatedly have urged quick action on the supplemental in order to speed it to the president's desk by Memorial Day, the package--which is expected to cost roughly $30 billion--took a week longer than anticipated to get to markup, and is not on this week's floor schedule. Nor do leadership aides expect to be able to untangle the various strands of dissatisfaction running through the Republican Conference before week's end, making a hoped-for Friday floor vote unlikely.

GOP leaders face several challenges in getting a supplemental that enjoys bipartisan support onto the floor. While the bill ultimately could pass the House by a sizeable bipartisan margin, GOP leaders currently face a close vote on the rule--particularly if they use the rule to attach legislation to raise the statutory debt limit to the supplemental.

Democrats blame the return to deficits and need to raise the government's borrowing limit on last year's $1.35 trillion tax cut, and are in no mood to help Republicans raise the debt ceiling if Republicans will not accept responsibility for the current situation, according to a Democratic leadership aide. The source said Democrats would oppose the rule unless it allows an up-or-down vote on raising the debt limit, or does not include the debt limit language at all.

But a politically risky up-or- down vote on raising the debt limit is the last thing GOP leaders want to force their own members to take, and putting off action on the debt limit, which the administration wants Congress to deal with soon, only postpones the inevitable.

The Treasury Department said last week that it will bump up against the current $5.95 trillion ceiling by mid-May, and would run out of ways to avoid breaching the ceiling by the end of June.

However, including the debt limit language could cost GOP leaders dearly. A bloc of conservatives, upset that the supplemental may exceed President Bush's request of $27 billion and unwilling to raise the debt limit without imposing budgetary restraints at the same time, is prepared to oppose the rule if changes are not made.

"There are more than enough conservatives to bring down the rule," said an aide to one House conservative. "Leadership needs to know that conservatives won't roll over cheaply. They can't just tweak around the edges of this bill or tweak around the edges of debt limit and bring conservatives on board."

Conservatives see the supplemental as a crucial first test for spending discipline this year, worrying that if spending is not reined in, the situation will only get worse as the fiscal 2003 bills move through the process.

Finally, to ensure passage of the rule, GOP leaders also must resolve the latest flap between the Appropriations and Transportation and Infrastructure committees over which panel's bill to fix the highway formula is added to the supplemental. Both committees have taken the position that if the other committee's bill is included, their members would oppose the rule.

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