Under pressure, House panel delays action on supplemental bill
Although Appropriations Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said the markup was put on ice to work through a dispute between committee Democrats and Republicans over a defense matter, several House Republicans' simmering objections, as well as red flags raised by the White House, already had cast shadows over the bill.
Leaving a 90-minute meeting with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Young told reporters the markup had been postponed because "we have some fine-tuning to get the bill as close to perfect as possible --nothing major." Despite the delay, Young said, "We're still on track to move to the floor next week."
At issue is a provision in the bill pushed by Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., but opposed by full committee ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., to make $100 million available to the Pentagon to reimburse foreign countries for logistical and military support they are providing in the war on terrorism.
"It's not the money," Obey said. "It's the authority" the language would give the Defense Department at the expense of the State Department.
But Republican objections already had signaled trouble. Conservative members are upset that the spending package--which would supplement current-year funding for the war on terrorism, homeland security and aid to New York--exceeds President Bush's initial $27.1 billion request by almost $3 billion.
At the same time GOP budget hawks were blanching at the package's price tag, they were grumbling that their allies in the White House were not sufficiently upset over the extra $3 billion. Included in the extra spending is $1 billion to make up a shortfall in Pell grant money, $650 million to implement the pending election reform bill and $200 million to combat HIV and AIDS worldwide.
To make matters worse, extra money for election reform is a Hastert priority, while conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. first publicly championed more AIDS money.
The hawks have become increasingly frustrated with the White House for not speaking out against a measure they oppose, considering it a crucial first test of whether Congress can keep a lid on spending this year.
"We're hoping the White House will be more forceful and will state in clear language that they oppose the increases that are not offset, if not the bill itself," said one House GOP aide. "Right now, we don't even have a clear signal of opposition from them."
Said another Republican, "The White House isn't exercising leadership on the supplemental," pointing to the fact that the administration had neither explicitly signed off on the $3 billion increase nor insisted it stay at $27 billion.
Nor is the White House pleased with language effectively requiring it to agree to designate as emergency spending the additional $1.8 billion in defense money the bill would add to Bush's $14 billion request in order to get any of the bill's $15.8 billion in supplemental defense money.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that advisers to President Bush are continuing to weigh congressional add-ons to the supplemental bill--but gave no specific indication that Bush would veto the bill, which contains much of what he requested.
"The administration is still taking a careful review of the items in the supplemental, both in terms of the aggregate funding and the myriad of items that are in there," Fleischer said. "The president's message on holding the line" on spending "remains his strong message to the Congress," he said.
The White House also is concerned the bill would direct to the Office of Homeland Security the $175 million the administration requested for grants to local "first responders." It had requested that the funds go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The administration worries that the redirection represents a backdoor attempt to make Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge answerable to Congress, despite its unwavering opposition to having Ridge testify in his capacity as a presidential adviser.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that the addition of some $800 million to the House bill for National Guard and reserve call-ups associated with Operation Enduring Freedom was unnecessary, National Journal News Service reported.
At a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, predicted that extra Guard funds would be a "key issue" when the supplemental eventually goes to conference. He asked Rumsfeld if he thought the money above the president's request was needed.
"We have not asked for that money," Rumsfeld said, "and we're not requesting it."
Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., called on the administration to give Congress more authority over homeland security funds. Of the $14 billion requested in the supplemental for Defense Department funding, Byrd said $11 billion is intended for a "loosely defined" emergency response fund, which gives appropriators little say.
Quoting the Constitution, Byrd said "accountability suffers" when appropriations do not go through the "regular process."
"I wonder what strings we might be able to write" to ensure accountability, Byrd mused.
Rumsfeld responded that the Defense Department is providing the Office of Management and Budget with monthly reports on how funds appropriated in last year's emergency supplemental are being spent, and he would see the committee gets the information as well.
Bill Ghent and Keith Koffler contributed to this report.