With Iraq war looming, Hill leaders head to White House

House and Senate Republican leaders are moving ahead with plans to consider their respective fiscal 2004 budget resolutions on the floor this week, despite what looks to be an imminent U.S.-led attack on Iraq. But aides said both measures could be delayed or postponed when fighting begins.

A bipartisan group of congressional leaders met with President Bush Monday afternoon. They were expected to discuss not just Iraq but also how a war might affect the timing of congressional action on President Bush's domestic priorities.

The administration has assured Congress that it would send an emergency fiscal 2003 supplemental spending request to cover the cost of the war within days of the start of military action. That proposal could be offered as soon as this week, complicating efforts to pass an already contentious budget resolution.

The war effort "may put it off a little bit," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said of the budget resolution. "I would not be surprised if people get up and talk about it."

Debate on the 2004 resolution began Monday afternoon in the Senate, and GOP leaders are insisting that they will continue to push for the administration's $726 billion in new tax cuts, despite opposition from Democrats and the concerns of moderate Republicans who say the tax cuts are more than twice as large as needed.

"The president's proposal for stimulating the economy is really what we need for spurring long term growth," said a Senate GOP leadership aide. The aide said leadership would continue to reach out to moderates through a series of meetings this week to convince them to support the full tax-cut package.

At the same time, Senate Republican and Democratic moderates are looking to amend the budget resolution to reduce the tax cuts to $350 billion. But a spokeswoman for Sen. John Breaux, D-La., one of the leaders of the effort, said it is unclear whether they have the votes to win. Key swing votes-including Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, John McCain, R-Ariz., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and others-have not committed to voting against the budget resolution should the total tax cut number be $726 billion. Breaux aides, who are drafting the $350 billion amendment, are "hounding them," the spokeswoman said. An aide to Collins said the senator would still vote for the $726 billion in a budget resolution, even though she has concerns about the tax package.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are looking to offer a series of amendments that would further their message about taking a "patriotic pause," a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said. "The business of Congress will have to continue," the spokesman said, and Republicans will have to explain their votes.

Likely Democratic amendments include delaying tax cuts and new spending-except for homeland security, defense and a one-year stimulus package-until the cost for a war with Iraq is known. They also plan amendments to boost assistance to states, increase spending on education and prescription drugs, and strike a provision calling for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In the House, leaders are currently trying to "grow votes" for the 2004 resolution, which is scheduled for floor action Thursday, a GOP leadership aide said. That timetable probably will push back action in the Ways and Means Committee on the tax cut proposals until next week, sources said.

Republican moderates and various committee chairmen have raised objections to the resolution's spending cuts, both in discretionary but particularly in mandatory programs. Under reconciliation, the resolution orders committees to come up with about $470 billion to mandatory programs, but lawmakers have said the resolution would force steep and politically unsustainable cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and government pension benefits.

As for reports that the resolution is undergoing drastic change to accommodate such concerns, a spokesman for the House Budget Committee said the primary focus right now remains on teaching legislators about the resolution. He said interests groups are drumming opposition based on inaccurate information, particularly about possible Medicare cuts.