Dems lay groundwork for challenging Bush over vetoes

Democrats signaled Thursday they are ready to test President Bush's resolve and GOP backing for his appropriations veto threats.

Instead of waiting for Bush to agree to negotiate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced his intention to send him three bills in the coming weeks and "see what he does with them."

None of the 12 fiscal 2008 appropriations bills have been signed into law and the Senate cleared a stopgap budget bill last night, 94-1, to keep federal agencies operating until Nov. 16.

More time may be needed to resolve the underlying impasse, however, particularly if Democrats follow through and begin sending individual bills downtown.

Democrats may be calculating Bush's vetoes could cost him politically. Instead of simply packaging bills into a giant omnibus which would give Bush the high ground to criticize Democrats' "bloated" spending and "pork-barrel" earmarks, Democrats are going to make the fight about individual programs and priorities.

"These bills help to educate our children, secure our homeland, support rural America, and promote a competitive economy. These domestic spending bills provide the essential building blocks for the foundations of our great country," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who has been pressing his leadership to bring the bills to the floor.

Reid did not say which bills leaders plan to send to the White House, but he has any number of candidates to draw a distinction between the Congress' and Bush's budget priorities.

Despite veto threats, the chamber has already passed fiscal 2008 Homeland Security and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development spending bills by overwhelming bipartisan margins.

Those bills contain border security, aviation safety, highway repair and housing infrastructure funding backed by both parties, for a total of $8 billion above Bush's requests.

No veto threat was lodged against the even more popular Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill, which is $4 billion more than Bush wants. Republicans suspect Democrats will hold that one in reserve should they need it to carry other bills.

Next up is a $54.4 billion Commerce-Justice-Science measure, which erases Bush's proposed $1.5 billion cuts in state and local law enforcement. Democrats argue that, with violent crime on the rise, public opinion will be on their side in that debate, despite the bill being $3.2 billion above Bush's request.

In a surprising shift, the Senate even plans to turn to the $150 billion Labor-Health and Human Services measure after Columbus Day, which represents the starkest difference -- about $9 billion worth -- between the White House and Democrats, restoring Bush-proposed cuts in worker-training programs, health research and education.

Reid praised Senate Republicans for working with him thus far to pass appropriations bills, even as they were lambasting Democrats for failing to pass the bills on time. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said "the first nine months have been squandered with an egregious mismanagement" of floor time.

But McConnell, a member of the Appropriations Committee, voted for both the Homeland Security and Transportation-HUD bills despite their price tags.

"There's a back and forth during the whole appropriations process ... every year there's a negotiation," McConnell allowed. "We'll see what [Bush] vetoes and where it ends up."

House and Senate Democratic leaders had displayed little enthusiasm for the appropriations fight, preferring to focus on Iraq. Various war policy votes could still occur in the coming weeks, but it now appears that on the heels of the children's health insurance battle, next year's domestic budget will take precedence over Iraq war funding for the time being.

Democrats have been contrasting Bush's war request with the $23 billion they are seeking for domestic programs, which Byrd said was "less than 1 percent of our entire budget and about what we spend in just two months' time fighting an unpopular war in Iraq."

The Senate will take up the $460 billion fiscal 2008 Defense appropriations bill next week, which upon final passage will provide a cushion for war operations through January, when pressure begins to build on Army operations and maintenance accounts.

Democrats could wait until then to take up Bush's separate $193 billion-plus war request, or provide a smaller amount later this year. Defense Secretary Robert Gates Wednesday urged Congress to take up the request as soon as possible, and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, echoed that concern Thursday.

But both parties are beginning to express concern with the war's swelling price tag.

"I think Congress has an obligation to look at the administration's request, to go through it with a fine-tooth comb and to make some determinations about how much money we need to appropriate to support our troops," Boehner said. "But the important thing is, we need to at least move part of it so that the military has the funds to do the planning and to keep the plants and the pipelines full."

Similarly, Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., expressed concern about the nearly $200 billion war request. "I haven't signed off on that," he said. "Our obligation is to review that very carefully, just like it's the president's obligation to review our spending priorities very carefully ... I want to see what the justification is. That too has a limit."

Ben Schneider contributed to this report.

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