Congress sends OMB a $100,000 message

Blink and you would miss it: a one-liner in the fiscal 2002 supplemental spending bill President Bush signed Friday to rescind $100,000 from the budget of the Office of Management and Budget.

But the cut-worth less than a half percent of OMB's budget - has significant political undertones to it. In the words of appropriators themselves, the rescission was as much about substance as it was about sending a "symbolic gesture" to what has become their worst nemesis.

Worn down by what they see as lack of cooperation from OMB and veto threats that are, as one appropriator put it, "thrown out like butter on bread," the Appropriations committees decided to take a crack at OMB's budget when looking for offsets to pay for the supplemental. What they found was that part of the agency's mission was being assumed by the White House Homeland Security Office.

The House originally proposed a $750,000 reduction in its version of the supplemental, and the Senate was reportedly willing to go along with it. But after a significant time lag, the cut was trimmed to $100,000-enough not to rile too many feathers but still make a point.

An OMB spokeswoman characterized the rescission as politically motivated and said it is "going to hurt career staff."

Appropriators deny the charge, saying the agency has enough money that no one will face a pink slip. "If you want to preach fiscal austerity, you ought to be able to practice it," said James Dyer, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. "All these sermons have consequences."

Indeed, the relationship between appropriators and OMB is possibly at its lowest point ever, especially after Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, personally attacked OMB Director Mitch Daniels on the Senate floor in July after Daniels issued last-minute demands on the supplemental.

Daniels' response to the criticism-Byrd called him a "little Caesar"-was subdued, but characteristically wry. He said he was thinking about asking President Bush to change his nickname from "The Blade" to "Pinata." Daniels added, "I think some folks think if they can knock my head off, all the goodies in town will fall out."

Things could get worse before they get better. Over the next few weeks, the White House will have to decide whether to designate $5 billion in the supplemental as true emergencies. Despite administration opposition, appropriators linked together several unrequested but politically popular items and told the White House that if it wanted one, it would have to take them all.

Rumors are circulating on Capitol Hill that the administration is looking for a way out of spending that money, even though it would kill projects for some Republicans and more than $2 billion in homeland security funds.

"If the president wants to deal with homeland security and he's running around talking about it so much, well, there's something he can do about it," Byrd said this week.

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