Budget debates leave White House with foes in both parties

President Bush got a lot of publicity for putting an American flag on the cover of his new budget. Considering the political brawls that have broken out on Capitol Hill since the budget's February 4 release, black and blue might have been more appropriate for the cover than red, white, and blue. Granted, some of the sniping has come from the usual suspects: congressional Democrats. But a fair number of shots have also come from congressional Republicans--including appropriators, highway advocates, and conservatives demanding a balanced budget--whose support the President needs. In fact, as the annual budget process gets under way, the Bush administration has managed to anger many members of Congress from both parties. The White House is renewing its decidedly uphill battle against the practice of lawmakers earmarking funds for specific projects in their districts or states. The administration has also irked transportation-minded members by proposing $9 billion in highway cuts, irritated New Yorkers by waffling on September 11 recovery funding, and insulted Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. During a February 7 Senate Budget Committee hearing, Byrd had a high-profile dustup with Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill over comments O'Neill had made disparaging congressional rules. Byrd was still seething in a February 12 interview with National Journal. "Some of these people in this administration come to town, and they've never held office and they've never been elected to anything, and they chafe at the rules," Byrd said. "Some of these people have complete disdain for Congress. They are contemptuous of Congress, and that's bad." The sour relations come as Congress and the administration already were facing a difficult year on the budget because of the increased demands for defense and homeland security, the lingering recession, and the return of federal deficits. Little wonder that the mood is one of uncertainty and apprehension, especially with the midterm elections approaching. "I think it's because the tectonic plates under the budget have shifted, and the major players aren't sure of their standing," said Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute. "The political atmosphere is going to determine everything." The first big confrontation is expected to come over a fiscal 2002 supplemental appropriations bill for the war and homeland security. In his budget, Bush did not request such a supplemental spending bill, possibly because it will increase the deficit even more. But Capitol Hill insiders are certain there will be a supplemental. House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., said he has discussed the issue with Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels and expects that Congress will consider the bill in March. Much of the supplemental money will be for defense, but appropriators are likely to want to steer funds to homeland security as well. New Yorkers, for their part, want a share for recovery efforts in their state. Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., said he has spoken with Young and intends to remain "forceful" in pushing for funds for New York. Daniels, who repeatedly ticked off key appropriators last year, recently had to apologize for suggesting that New Yorkers are involved in a "money-grubbing game"--a comment that Sweeney said "hasn't been helpful in keeping people focused." At the same time that Congress begins work on the supplemental, it will have to pass legislation to increase the federal debt limit. The effort may be fraught with political mischief and mayhem, as members may seek to attach pet proposals. "It provides another must-pass vehicle for a minority of Senators," acknowledged a senior Senate Democratic aide. Reischauer noted that "the real danger is that some crazy procedural requirements are attached to the [debt-limit] bill." For instance, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction plan that guided budgeting for years was originally an amendment to a 1985 debt-limit bill. After completing the debt-limit legislation, both chambers will work on a fiscal 2003 budget resolution, which would serve as a guide for appropriators to craft the 13 annual appropriations bills. But insiders have been predicting for months that the divided Congress probably won't be able to agree on a budget resolution this year. In the Senate, the budget resolution could get tied up in the Budget Committee, where Democrats have only a one-vote margin, or on the floor, where Democrats have the same problem. The two parties have plenty of disagreements that could prevent the Senate from passing a budget. (Remember, Sen. James M. Jeffords, I-Vt., left the Republican Party last year over the fiscal 2002 budget resolution.) House GOP leaders also face problems in passing a budget resolution. Some Republican conservatives are demanding a balanced budget, now that extra money is available because of the failure of economic stimulus legislation. "If we can't enact a strong stimulus package that would help create jobs, then we not only can--but must--balance the federal budget," said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., chairman of the Republican Study Committee. Bush's budget would result in an $80 billion deficit in fiscal 2003, while the stimulus package would have cost $77 billion, so a balanced budget seems within reach. Reischauer said, however, that when the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of the Bush budget, another $50 billion will likely be required to balance the budget. Even if both chambers approve their own budget resolutions, the chances are not good that a conference committee could reconcile the differences. If Congress finds it impossible to approve a budget resolution conference report--as was the case in 1998, when Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., and House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, could not agree on a tax cut--the leaders of each chamber would provide their own spending levels to appropriators. In even the smoothest of years, that situation could cause chaos. And this is far from the smoothest of years. Sure, Republicans and Democrats are likely to agree on spending for the war against terrorism at home and abroad. "When it comes to waging and winning the war against terrorism, the President has our total support," said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., the House Budget Committee ranking member, in a recent letter to colleagues. "We are united, determined to win, and unstinting about paying the necessary cost." Yet Spratt added that Democrats "don't think national security and homeland security need to come at the expense of Social Security and other national priorities, as the President's budget proposes." Democrats have yet to outline how they would maintain war and homeland security spending, while still supporting their priority domestic programs. Meanwhile, bipartisan opposition is mounting against the Bush administration's continued effort to end earmarked projects. "We did say last year, we say again this year, that we think the long-term practice of special projects and earmarking by Congress has gotten out of hand," Daniels said at a budget briefing. "It's multiplied eight times in the last four or five years. We now have entire programs of the federal government for which every penny has been earmarked for somebody's special pet project." To make its point, the administration released a long list of Education Department earmarks that could be rescinded to pay for a shortfall in the Pell grant program. The Bush budget featured some color pictures of earmarked projects, including an ice-rescue sled that House Appropriations Committee ranking member David R. Obey, D-Wis., gained for Ashland, Wis. In his defense, Obey said that three people died after falling through ice on the lake on which the rescue sled will be used--something Bush's budget did not mention. He also said the budget included the wrong picture and the wrong price for the sled, and he questioned Bush's motives. "It's a diversion," Obey said in an interview. "He's trying to get you guys to write stories about the Congress, rather than his budget." Young, for his part, fired off a letter reminding Daniels that under the Constitution, Congress decides how money is to be spent. "The power of the purse resides solely with the Congress," Young wrote. "Unless the Constitution is amended, Congress will continue to exercise its discretion over federal funds, and will earmark those funds for purposes we deem appropriate." Young, of course, is not the only member of Congress in recent days to question whether Bush administration officials know their civics. Byrd, in his emotionally charged exchange with O'Neill, attacked the administration for including in its budget a drawing of Gulliver tied to the ground, with the caption, "Many departments are tied-up in a morass of Lilliputian do's and don'ts." That caption echoed comments that O'Neill had made in an earlier speech to a business group. Byrd charged that O'Neill was referring to congressional rules, one of which is known as the Byrd Rule and restricts what can be attached to budget reconciliation bills. "These administration people who keep talking about Lilliputians don't really understand Jonathan Swift's master satire," Byrd said in the interview with National Journal. "They are the type of men who Jonathan Swift was making fun of. They need to be held in check." The barbs traded between Byrd and O'Neill may not seem like a big deal. And for now, the administration--still soaring on Bush's high approval ratings--seems emboldened to continue tweaking Congress and to pursue its own budget prerogatives. But at some point late in the congressional session, the administration will probably need the cooperation of lawmakers it had earlier alienated. Among those members could be the 84-year-old senior Senator from West Virginia, and he has a very long memory.

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