GOP leaders to put president's budget to the test

Raising the stakes for the president's budget-and potentially setting up a confrontation with legislators in their own party-GOP appropriators late Wednesday decided to introduce a fiscal 2003 Labor-HHS spending bill that not only meets the requested total of $130 billion but also funds the various programs in the bill at the exact levels prescribed by the president.

Frustrated by their inability to secure more funds for the bill-and angered by a leadership decision to hold up other spending bills until the Labor-HHS spending bill is completed-appropriators toyed for weeks with the idea of introducing the president's budget request for the bill.

Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, had raised concerns about such a strategy because it would prevent him from funding the bill's priorities as he wanted. However, Regula and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., met Wednesday night and agreed to a strategy of forcing a vote on the president's budget. Appropriators privately believe that if the president's budget fails, it will force leaders to realize that more money will be needed to finish appropriations bills this year.

Young said appropriators had yet to decide whether to hold a markup on the bill or take it directly to the floor. Some on the committee prefer to see the bill go to the floor so that all lawmakers will be forced to vote on it. Otherwise, they fear that leaders, seeing it does not have enough support on the floor, will pull it, leaving GOP appropriators-but no one else-having taken a difficult vote on the bill.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Wednesday night he would prefer that the bill be put through a markup, however. He also downplayed concerns raised by GOP moderates that the bill is too short on funds, noting that it is important to stick to the president's budget.

"I'm on the road and people want us to keep a hold on spending," Hastert said.

Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said the bill probably would go through several changes before a vote is taken, and all efforts would be made to appease lawmakers, as long as overall discretionary spending for 2003 remains within the president's request.

"Our goal is to pass Labor-HHS," said Shadegg. "All of us have a stake in it."

With the appropriations process in knots, GOP leaders met Wednesday afternoon to discuss a variety of options for end-game strategy.

But after the meeting, no consensus existed on the various issues, and aides predicted it might take until next week, at the earliest, to determine how to proceed on a variety of appropriations fronts.

A leadership source said Hastert had acknowledged at the meeting that "support seemed to be growing" for a long-term continuing resolution that would extend beyond the elections in November and possibly into next year.

Even appropriators acknowledge the virtual impossibility of completing work on all 13 spending bills before the adjournment target of Oct. 4, but they steadfastly oppose any sort of long-term CR, saying they need to stay in to get as much work done as possible and then return after the elections to finish the leftovers.

But some Republicans like the idea of a long-term CR, because it would allow them to retire this year without caving in to Senate Democratic demands for more money-a concern crucial to the GOP base that they rely on for votes in November.

Supporters of the long-term CR idea also are banking that the election could return both chambers of Congress to Republican control, meaning work on appropriations bills could become much easier.

In Wednesday's meeting, Hastert did not advocate the CR idea. Meanwhile, Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said in a memo Wednesday that taking that route would be tantamount to abdicating Congress' responsibility.

"Postponing action on the spending bills until next year is a fool's errand," Armey wrote. "Americans sent us to Washington to get the job done this year."

Another leadership source said while Republicans would love to postpone difficult decisions about FY03 spending until after the elections, the idea of a long-term CR is "not sustainable."

"Democrats would be opposed to it. In September, you can't kick things over until next year," the source said.

Mark Wegner contributed to this report.