White House separates Defense spending, authorization

Although President Bush has demanded that Congress send him the fiscal 2003 Defense appropriations bill before recessing to go home and campaign, the White House Monday indicated that a hold-up over the Defense authorization bill might not hinder Congress' exit.

The authorization bill faces a veto threat over health benefits that have been added by the House and Senate in their versions of the bill. Asked Monday if Bush might not sign a long-term continuing resolution should the authorization bill not get done before Congress leaves, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer indicated the bill had a different status than the spending measure. "This is Defense authorization, not Defense appropriation," Fleischer said.

OMB Director Mitch Daniels last month indicated Bush was willing to sign a long-term CR as long as Congress finishes the Defense spending bill.

Appropriators are close to finishing that spending bill, sources said Monday, although there is still a significant disagreement over $300 million in spending for the Coast Guard. Senate appropriators are looking to transfer $300 million from the Defense Department to the Coast Guard to help out with some of its increased responsibilities following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But House appropriators prefer to see the Coast Guard funded under the fiscal 2003 Transportation appropriations bill, not from money out of the Defense Department. A spokesman for House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said the difference is not viewed by conferees as a "make or break" issue and that lawmakers were still "trying to work it out."

Conferees could meet on the Defense and military construction spending bills as early as Tuesday.