Disputes among Republicans over proposals to shift several billion dollars from defense to popular domestic programs have prevented work even from beginning on the must-pass spending bills, costing the House and Senate Appropriations committees a month's time.
Fights last year between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the GOP-run House, and between conservative and moderate Republicans, stalled completion of the 2003 bills until this past January — nearly four months late.
Now, Republicans will control the spending process for the first time since 1954 with their hold on the executive and legislative branches. They want to finish all the bills close to the Oct. 1 start of the government's 2004 budget year as a symbol of their ability to govern.
"Once this dam breaks, we're going to start producing bills right away," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla.
Congress's two top Republicans planned to meet Monday with President Bush at the White House to discuss the bills, which will total roughly $785 billion and finance every federal agency. The rest of the $2.2 trillion budget is for automatically paid benefits such as Medicare.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee were hoping for the president's blessing for their proposal to shift about $3 billion from the military to domestic security, education and other programs.
The defense funds would be restored with money not spent from this spring's $80 billion bill that financed the Iraq war, Republicans say.
An additional $2.2 billion would be provided for domestic programs with a second accounting maneuver. That $2.2 billion for 2004 was approved in last year's bills, but under the proposal would not count against the budget's $785 billion spending cap.
Mr. Bush's acquiescence to the proposed money shifts would be an important signal to GOP conservatives, who annually battle the Appropriations committees over spending that the conservatives say is excessive.
Members of the committees, where bipartisan cooperation long has been the hallmark, say they are being pragmatic and including enough money for their bills to win enough votes to pass Congress.
Underlining the mistrust and hostility between the two GOP factions, conservatives say they worry the proposed money shifts would serve as a prelude to efforts later this year by the committees to spend more than the budget would permit.
"Because the appropriators believe they have to fit 100 pounds of potatoes into a 99 pound sack, they appear to be seeking a road map at the outset that will guarantee success," said a weekly Senate Budget Committee newsletter controlled by that committee's chairman, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla.
Under the budget Congress enacted in April, the Pentagon and other defense programs would get $400 billion of the $785 billion planned for the spending bills. The rest would go to domestic programs ranging from aviation safety to Internal Revenue Agency agents' salaries.
Republicans say they will use the extra money for education, veterans' health care, firefighting, environment and other areas where they say Mr. Bush fell short in the budget he proposed in February.
Young said his committee could live within the budget's limits if it is allowed to make the proposed shifts and "by being very austere" with the bills.
Last month, the president and Republicans claimed a significant political victory by enacting $330 billion in tax reductions through 2013. They had to retreat under Democratic pressure last week as the Senate voted to give many low-income workers the same $1,000 per child tax credit that higher earners received in the May tax bill.
This week's shift to spending puts Republicans on more vulnerable political ground.
After spending the tax cut battle arguing that record federal deficits that may surpass $400 billion this year matter little, it could be harder for them to credibly cite the red ink as a rationale for limiting spending.