Budget Battle At Crossroads

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CBS/AP
A top House Democrat threatened Monday to scuttle a massive compromise federal spending bill, accusing the White House and congressional Republicans of failing to bargain in good faith.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said he might abandon an effort with moderate Republicans to split the differences between increases sought by Democrats and the strict budget submitted by President Bush in February.

Instead, Obey said, he would rip up the compromise bill and devise a new one using the strict spending ceiling set by Mr. Bush - but would reach it by whacking GOP priorities and stripping the measure of billions of dollars in pet projects for lawmakers in both parties.

Obey's remarks to The Associated Press came two days after White House budget director Jim Nussle promised Mr. Bush would veto Democrats' omnibus spending bill for exceeding Mr. Bush's budget by $18 billion.

Nussle had accused Democrats of "trying to leverage troop-funding for more pork-barrel spending," but Obey said the opposite is true - that the White House was willing to relent just slightly on domestic spending in order to obtain up to $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's too high a price, Obey said, threatening to cut off negotiations.

"Short of having somebody in authority sit down and say, 'OK, we will work out a reasonable compromise,' I don't see any point in prolonging the agony," Obey said. "I don't see how we have any choice but to go to the president's numbers on appropriations to make clear that we aren't going to link the war with token funding on the domestic side."

Obey's remarks came the day he was expected to unveil a more than $522 billion omnibus bill with a House vote scheduled on Tuesday.

The measure would have represented the best hope for avoiding a budget train wreck like the stalemate last year under GOP rule. The measure under development would roll together 11 unfinished spending bills funding every domestic Cabinet agency, as well as a foreign aid budget that's trimmed back from Mr. Bush's request.

The bill contains about $30 billion for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, but Democratic leaders anticipate that Senate Republicans would have added to the measure up to $40 billion more for military operations in Iraq.

"They keep raising the ante," Obey said. "Now they're up to $70 billion (for Iraq and Afghanistan). I don't want to be part of any deal like that."

Obey's comments appeared aimed in part at encouraging the sizable bloc of pragmatic Republicans supporting the split-the-differences bill to press GOP leaders to make concessions or risk losing funding for favored programs and hometown projects.

The infusion of war funds was expected to siphon off votes from anti-war Democrats, making it extremely difficult to assembled a hoped for veto-proof coalition of Democrats and GOP moderates for the bill.

On Monday, MoveOn.org, a leading liberal advocacy group, called on lawmakers to oppose any war funding measure that does not include a timetable for withdrawing troops.

In a statement Saturday, the White House promise to veto the bill sight unseen over $18 billion in spending above Mr. Bush's February budget request. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose office had been actively participating in negotiations on the measure, announced Saturday that he opposes it as too expensive.

The bill under development includes almost $11 billion above Mr. Bush's overall figure for the one-third of the U.S. budget appropriated each year by Congress, as well as $7.4 billion in emergency spending for pressing needs like border security and State Department operations in Iraq.

Most of the emergency money was either requested by the White House or receives strongest backing from Republicans. Even items not officially requested by the White House budget office were requested by agency chiefs, Obey said.

"Most of that emergency spending is theirs," Obey said.

Of the $11 billion increase Democrats sought for other programs, much of the money would have gone to reverse budget cuts sought by Mr. Bush to programs such as grants to state and local governments for law enforcement, community development, and water and sewer projects.

The bill also would have provided small increases for health research, education and community health centers, among other programs. Homeland security grants to state and local police and firefighters would have received a $726 million boost, some 20 percent.