White House may step in on appropriations bills

In an indication of increased involvement by congressional leaders in the appropriations process this year, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., wants to convene a bicameral meeting as early as Thursday with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to work through the annual exercise of translating the budget resolution's discretionary spending limit into allocations for the 13 Appropriations subcommittees.

Ultimately, Hastert and Frist want President Bush to back them up so that GOP conservatives and defense hawks do not revolt and refuse to go along with a proposal to rescind money from the fiscal 2003 supplemental spending bill and distribute it among subcommittees that would otherwise suffer potentially unsupportable cuts.

For more than a month now, appropriators have been stymied in their efforts to arrive at their respective 302(b) allocations, saying they cannot produce passable spending bills under the budget resolution's $784.5 billion spending limit-particularly when they are effectively starting out with $10 billion less than what they were allotted.

A succession of meetings between appropriators and leaders in both chambers has failed to produce a solution. The latest meeting, between Hastert and Young, took place Wednesday.

This year's congressional budget was roughly $2 billion to $3 billion less than President Bush's budget. In addition, it contains $7.6 billion in spending increases members insisted on-such as those for education, veterans and the National Science Foundation-that is not offset.

Starting that far in the red, appropriators say, means writing fiscal 2004 bills that would require significant cuts in programs members support.

House appropriators have proposed taking from $5 billion to $7 billion in unspent funds that were provided in the supplemental and adding it back into defense accounts later this year when Congress takes up a 2004 supplemental to cover further expenses incurred in the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

But because defense increases have become almost politically untouchable, Hastert reportedly wants to limit any rescission to around $3 billion.

Senate appropriators have been considering a number of different scenarios, but said they are willing to work with their House counterparts to arrive at a common solution. But Senate appropriators want to take the unprecedented step of producing joint subcommittee allocations with the House, while House appropriators insist on retaining the freedom to set their own spending priorities.

Bringing the White House into the expanding pool of negotiators-which only Wednesday grew to include House Majority Leader DeLay-represents a new wrinkle in the process and a change that has guardians of Congress' power of the purse worried that Congress is ceding too much power to the White House.