The price tag is $14.3 billion above President Bush's request, and Frist has urged Bush to "take a more public role next week" when the measure comes to the Senate floor, a top aide said Tuesday. Frist -- a likely 2008 White House contender -- needs the support of the conservative base, which has been inflamed by the size of the bill approved by the Appropriations Committee earlier this month.
Frist has not specifically recommended a veto threat to the White House, but Republican aides confirmed there have been high-level discussions with the administration and that Frist's office has urged rank-and-file senators to encourage the White House to issue a veto threat.
"Leadership is very concerned we'll have another 'bridge-to-nowhere' debate," said one GOP aide, referring to the brouhaha over spending priorities in last year's highway bill. House Republicans are expected to try to strip the additional funding once the package goes to conference.
Conservative opposition -- along with a Democratic strategy to use the debate to dramatize election-year issues -- is likely to extend debate on the emergency supplemental another week, a Frist aide said Tuesday. "This is going to take longer than people think," said the aide. "We need an extra week."
Frist and other conservatives want more time to debate the issue, arguing the extra spending could further alienate their GOP base. "The Republican base is demoralized and the last thing the Senate should do is say it's more important to secure a railroad crossing in Biloxi rather than fund Humvee patrols in Baghdad," a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said Wednesday.
Coburn is considering drafting more than a dozen amendments to challenge non-emergency spending in the supplemental bill like a provision added by Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran and Sen. Trent Lott, both Mississippi Republicans, to relocate a Gulf Coast rail line.
Conservatives have focused their anger on nearly $4 billion in drought relief for farmers and ranchers, $1.1 billion for Gulf Coast fisheries, and other items totaling nearly $10 billion added in committee April 4. A White House official declined comment on a possible veto threat but noted the administration was "astonished" by the amount of add-ons in the Senate Appropriations Committee and will "continue to work to pass a more fiscally responsible" bill.
Cochran's staff could not be reached for comment by presstime. Cochran said during the markup that Congress should "consider very carefully a bill of this magnitude."
Democrats plan to offer several amendments to highlight the Bush administration's level of funding for health care, veterans' benefits, energy and national security. A protracted debate on the emergency supplemental might delay Senate action on other GOP priorities for May, including Frist's plans to repeal the estate tax and a week dedicated to healthcare bills.