Negotiators agree to hold emergency funding to $94.5 billion

Move will avoid a fight with the White House, which had threatened to veto the package if it exceeded Bush's request.

House and Senate negotiators have agreed to hold the fiscal 2006 emergency war and hurricane relief package to no more than $94.5 billion, avoiding a veto fight with the White House.

The package will adhere to President Bush's initial $92.2 billion limit, and might increase by $2.3 billion if avian flu preparedness initiatives favored by the administration are added. But those funds and Bush's new border security plan face pushback from the Appropriations committees.

White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten went to Capitol Hill Thursday, in part to soothe nerves frayed by introduction earlier in the day of the $1.9 billion border control package. Bolten declined to comment after the meetings, but aides said his visit was positive and boosted the bill's chances for approval before Memorial Day.

The border plan adds another wrinkle to negotiations that the White House wants to wrap up by the end of next week. The funds must be offset to stay within the overall $94.5 billion limit, which the White House assumes will include the avian flu money.

Some of that money might be deferred to the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, while the border security plan, including $756 million to deploy 6,000 National Guard members, faces scrutiny. "Until this week, the president fought against almost every single congressional effort to strengthen our border security," said Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

Bush's proposed offsets for the border package are also in question. The money will come largely from Pentagon procurement accounts, including money to buy armored vehicles, heavy trucks, radios, generators, replacements for downed helicopters and armor kits for soldiers. The White House said those items and some military construction projects might be deferred to fiscal 2007.

But the House has already moved $4 billion from next year's base defense budget to fund domestic programs, while tapping emergency funds set aside for the war effort next year to fund other military construction projects.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is seeking to offset the cost of priorities in his home state of Mississippi. The offsets might include cutting deeper into Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief funds.

But with the new hurricane season looming, the Office of Management and Budget said reducing the disaster account to less than $7.2 billion would strain FEMA's ability to respond.

In a letter to lawmakers, acting OMB Director Clay Johnson said that unless lawmakers give final approval before leaving town at the end of next week, war-fighting resources might be shortchanged.

But the Pentagon has the capacity to dip into existing funds to make it through an extra month without seriously jeopardizing operational needs, congressional aides said.

Even if differences can be resolved by mid-week, filing the paperwork and putting the matter to a vote in both chambers will make it difficult to send to the president's desk in time for the recess.