Dems pull Defense bill from 'mini-bus' spending package

House-Senate negotiators have decided to pull a $470 billion Defense spending bill out of a combined package with the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs and Labor-Health and Human Services bills.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said he informed Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., of his plan late Wednesday night as a way to accommodate GOP concerns about trying to piggyback a $10 billion boost above President Bush's request for Labor-HHS funding on top of money for troops and veterans' benefits.

Obey said he made the proposal "in the spirit of compromise" and that he hoped Republicans would come their way on increased Labor-HHS funds in response. Republicans said the back and forth represented Democratic mismanagement.

"It shows again trying to legislate without a real plan," said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

The move also came in response to concerns among anti-war House Democrats about the combined package, as additional funds for protective equipment for troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were to be included. Negotiators agreed to shave the proposed figure by about half, limiting war-related funds to $11 billion solely to purchase additional mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, but there were still objections.

The measure includes just the Labor-HHS and Military Construction-VA measures, for a total of about $215.5 billion -- about 70 percent less than the original package.

Republicans still oppose combining even the two smaller bills, arguing it will delay the Military Construction-VA bill, which enjoys broad support. "By lashing these two bills together, we ensure their demise," said House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member James Walsh, R-N.Y.

Senate Republicans offered a motion to split the bills, but it failed on a party-line vote.

However, Senate Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said Republicans in that chamber would likely lodge a point of order against including "airdropped" matters, items not included in the underlying bill as passed by the House or Senate. That would require Democrats to muster 60 votes to keep the package together, or the Military Construction-VA bill would be broken off the underlying Labor-HHS measure.

Senate GOP leaders are circulating a letter urging Democrats to keep the measures separate, which has 44 signatures thus far, more than enough to sustain a point of order.

"This bill is going to run into huge obstacles. I don't think it will get through the Senate," Hutchison said.

Obey responded that if that were the case, then Republicans who voted to break the bills apart would "bear responsibility" for delaying veterans' health funds.

President Bush urged Congress to finish the Military Construction-VA and Defense spending bills, but he again threatened to veto the measures if they are combined with the Labor-HHS bill.

"When it comes to funding our troops, some in Washington should spend more time responding to the warnings of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and the requests of our commanders on the ground, and less time responding to the demands of MoveOn.org bloggers and Code Pink protesters," he said.

Christian Bourge and Keith Koffler contributed to this report.

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