WASHINGTON – A popular House bill aiming $29 billion at the fight against terrorism bogged down Thursday in an election-year tussle over the burgeoning national debt.
Ultimate passage of the bill is a virtual certainty by a huge bipartisan margin. Both parties strongly support its spending for the Pentagon, intelligence, airport security, aid to U.S. allies and New York's recovery from the Sept. 11 attacks.
But angry Democrats were slowing work on the measure to a crawl, objecting to a Republican move on Wednesday that added language opening the door to President Bush's request to add $750 billion to the government's current $5.95 trillion cap on borrowing.
"Strip out the sneaky way of trying to raise the national debt," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who threatened to stretch out the debate for days. GOP leaders had hoped to begin the House's Memorial Day recess on Wednesday night.
Democrats blame the rebirth of federal deficits on last year's GOP tax cut, and want the government's need for more borrowing to be highly visible to voters.
Majority Republicans are eager to avoid a direct vote on the potentially embarrassing issue. Knowing they could vote to shut off debate if they chose, they were showing no signs of backing down.
"We're going to stay here until we finish this bill, whatever it takes," said Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which produced the underlying spending legislation. "American soldiers are dying, unfortunately."
Also drawing Democratic complaints was a provision Republicans forced into the bill helping the U.S. textile industry, a payback for support by Reps. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Robin Hayes, R-N.C., on trade legislation. And they objected to language enriching Medicare reimbursements for hospitals in the districts of Reps. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., and Don Sherwood, R-Pa., also in exchange for their trade votes.
Things went more smoothly Wednesday at the Senate Appropriations Committee, which voted 29-0 for its own $31 billion anti-terrorism bill.
That measure faces White House objections for being $3.9 billion over Bush's request. It also could face a rocky time when the Senate votes on it, probably after returning from the Memorial Day recess in June.
About half the money in the House and Senate bills would go to the Pentagon and intelligence programs. Both would exceed Bush's $5.3 billion request for the FBI, the Coast Guard and other domestic security programs, while both would provide the $5.5 billion Bush requested to help New York City recover from the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Both bills also added items Bush had not sought, including aid for Israel and the Palestinians, fighting AIDS overseas and helping states revamp their election systems.
The Senate bill also would require Senate confirmation for the director of homeland security, Tom Ridge. That provision was the latest salvo in the battle between Ridge and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who with lawmakers from both parties has unsuccessfully demanded that Ridge testify before Congress.
Both the House and Senate bills are for the remaining four months in the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Meanwhile, the House voted 425-1 to approve a separate bill mapping federal efforts to combat bioterrorism that could cost $4.6 billion over the next two years.
The measure would create federal grants to help states counter attacks from biological agents and let the government stockpile smallpox and other vaccines, hire more food inspectors, plan to protect water systems and modernize facilities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Senate could grant it final congressional approval as early as Friday.