White House threatens veto as omnibus deal nears on Hill

With the current continuing resolution set to expire Friday and still no final deal on the 11 unfinished fiscal 2003 appropriations bills, the House Wednesday is expected to take up an eighth continuing resolution to keep the government operating through Feb. 14.

Appropriators hope, however, that they are going to be able to complete negotiations on the massive omnibus spending legislation by the end of next week.

Although the two chambers still have a host of issues left to hammer out-like the fate of Senate-requested education increases and the across-the-board spending cut-appropriators hope to be able to conference the omnibus bill as early as Monday, with votes expected in the House Wednesday and the Senate Thursday.

Meanwhile, the administration released its views on the Senate-passed omnibus bill Wednesday, saying in no uncertain terms that President Bush will veto anything above a $390 billion threshold-which includes $385.9 billion for regular discretionary items plus another $3.9 billion for a special January Defense-related request.

"It is important that this level be reached transparently," said the OMB-drafted letter. "Should the final version of the bill exceed this level, including excessive use of advanced appropriations or other mechanisms that would circumvent this spending limit, the president's senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill."

As for specific parts of the bill, the administration said it would support some $3.1 billion in disaster-related agriculture spending, but only if it is offset "within existing agriculture funding."

That would restate the administration's previous position that the cuts must come from farm bill programs, while Senate appropriators used a discretionary, across-the-board cut to help fund drought aid.

In addition, the administration said it opposed the $31.8 billion level for highway funds in fiscal 2003 pushed by both the House and Senate, calling it "an unsustainable level of spending that breaks dramatically with the tradition of tying highway funding to trust fund revenue."

The administration also said it was opposed to the $1.2 billion appropriated in the Senate bill for Amtrak because the money is not accompanied by needed structural reforms. Instead, the administration says it supports the House level of $762 million, which is still $241 million above the president's request.

However, conference negotiators may have a hard time sticking to the House level. Last week, 32 House Republicans sent a letter to House Appropriations C.W. (Bill) Chairman Young, R-Fla.,-who will head up negotiations for the House-to fully fund Amtrak at the Senate's mark of $1.2 billion.

As for homeland security, the administration asked conferees to restore some $370 million for bioterrorism, while eliminating House language that would restrict agency transfers. In addition, the administration said it was opposed to a $200 million cut for the Transportation Security Administration proposed by the House, as well as $400 million in TSA earmarks in the Senate bill.

The administration also criticized the Senate's use of advanced appropriations to fund special education programs, as well as the Senate's Pell Grant level.

As for non-appropriations items, the administration said it would veto the omnibus bill unless conferees restore so-called Kemp-Kasten provisions that restrict federal funds from going to organizations that participate in so-called coerced abortions overseas.

And the administration also issued a veto threat if the bill contains language that would lift sanctions against Cuba.