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McConnell Caught In Budget Box

For months, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has complained about the inability of Democrats to cut deals and move legislation, insisting that the biggest accomplishments in divided government come from bipartisan relationships.

But now that Democratic congressional leaders are poised to cave in on Iraq funding — no withdrawal timetables, no restrictions on funding — and have offered to meet Republicans halfway on limiting domestic spending increases, McConnell is boxed in.

He’s being forced to choose between hard-line GOP conservatives who want to push the budget debate to the brink of a government shutdown and his own desire to follow the senatorial tradition of making deals. And as an appropriator who stands to gain millions in earmarks for his home state while running for reelection, McConnell also is being whipsawed by heavy pressure from the White House and a large bloc of his fellow Republicans to hold the line on domestic spending, even as Democrats have offered to cut $11 billion from their appropriation bills.

At this point, the conservatives are winning the debate and see no reason to compromise because, as one top Senate GOP aide put it, “We’ve got them in a defensive posture and we’re winning.”

In previous years, the end game on this battle would have been a backroom compromise on the dollar figures and adjournment with plenty of time for lawmakers to do their Christmas shopping.

But this year, many in the GOP have a score to settle and the mantle of fiscal conservatism to retrieve.

And McConnell is their last line of defense in the Senate once the House Democrats force through their $520 billion omnibus spending bill, covering 11 of the 12 annual spending bills.

McConnell’s dilemma over the spending battle was evident in the pained statement his office released over the weekend, in which he delicately praised Democrats for working on a compromise while in the same breath rejecting their offer.

“I appreciate the movement in the right direction on the part of congressional Democrats toward concluding this Congress,” McConnell said, adding that the spending level was still “unacceptable to congressional Republicans.”

On Monday, in a short speech on the Senate floor, McConnell said the “path forward is clear” for Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democrats on the spending bills, the alternative minimum tax, reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other outstanding legislative issues, although he offered no specifics on what exactly that path is other than giving into GOP demands.

McConnell is expected to offer a compromise omnibus proposal on Tuesday that stays within President Bush’s budget framework, meaning no increased spending, although details of the offer were not yet available.

Republican aides in both chambers say conservative lawmakers last week were worried that McConnell was going to cut a deal on spending after Reid and McConnell met with White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and budget director Jim Nussle. But over the weekend, the White House threatened to veto the $520 billion bill, and McConnell backed Bush, a move that pleased Republicans looking to recapture the mantle of fiscal conservatism.

“House Republicans are committed to exercise a significant amount of fiscal restraint, and we’re confident that the White House, along with our colleagues in the Senate, are ready for this fight,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “We hold all the cards.”

At a Senate GOP leadership staff meeting on Monday, McConnell’s aides decreed that he would not support the omnibus spending deal being crafted by the House, and he was prepared to stay in session as long as it took to revise the deal.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), in his first big dbate since being tapped as Senate Republican whip, will also oppose the Democrats’ proposal, and a number of GOP conservatives are lining up behind their leadership for either a filibuster of the bill or a veto override. Some Senate Republicans are pressing for a yearlong continuing resolution to fund government operations with no earmarks, seeing that as a way to boost their party’s fiscal reputation, although neither McConnell nor Boehner has said he would support such a plan now.

Boehner and the House GOP leadership have set up a “war room” to quickly review the massive omnibus package and publicize any questionable earmarks inserted by Democrats, especially party leaders.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) was criticized for a $450,000 earmark he won for a campaign donor, and more such stories are expected to be leaked in coming days.

Republicans on the House Rules Committee complained that the Democratic plan for the omnibus, which consists of amending the foreign operations bill by attaching the larger spending bill, will help Democrats avoid disclosing which lawmaker has inserted earmarks into the bill before it is voted on by the House on Tuesday.

The Senate majority leader and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for their part, have their hands full with their liberal base as they try to cut deals. The liberal MoveOn.org, along with other anti-war groups, plan to protest any funding for the Iraq war that does not include a troop withdrawal deadline.

With some 75 members of the Out of Iraq Caucus in the House, Democrats might not get the votes of dozens in their own party if they push through funding for the war with no strings attached.

Reid went on the offensive Monday, complaining that the “president and Bush Republicans” were refusing to acknowledge that the omnibus addressed serious domestic needs, including billions of dollars in emergency funding for border security, something GOP lawmakers in both chambers have been clamoring for.

“When Americans wonder why there are fewer police on their streets, fewer agents on our borders and fewer teachers in their children’s classrooms, the answer will be painfully clear: The president and Bush Republicans are unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate in good faith,” Reid said in a statement.

“Democrats know the stakes are too high to play games with America’s priorities, and we will not let this president’s inflexibility stand in the way of funding those critical needs.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) took an even harder line, claiming the Republicans have the wrong priorities.

“It is extraordinary that the president would request an 11 percent increase for the Department of Defense, a 12 percent increase for foreign aid and $195 billion of emergency funding for the war, while asserting that a 4.7 percent increase for domestic programs is fiscally irresponsible,” Byrd said. “I refuse to accept the fanciful notion that it is wasteful to provide health care to our veterans, fight increasing levels of violent crime, repair our bridges or educate our children.

“It is time to govern, Mr. President,” Byrd said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.), in an interview with The Associated Press, went even further than his Senate counterpart, suggesting he would withdraw the omnibus bill if it doesn’t get GOP support and rewrite the bill, this time ignoring Republican priorities.

“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 was quoted as saying. “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 dometic side.”