WASHINGTON – Lawmakers nearing elections and distracted by talk of war with Iraq are battling over whether to set aside their budget impasse and keep agencies at last year's spending levels for the next few months.
Conservatives see the idea as a good way to save money by delaying inevitable spending increases. They are pitted against Democrats and moderate Republicans who say priorities such as domestic security, education and medical research would be squeezed.
Also in play are White House efforts to cast President Bush as a stalwart of fiscal restraint. Though Bush at times has signed off on more spending than he initially proposed, he repeatedly has insisted that the 13 spending bills for the government's new budget year come in around $759 billion. Democrats and some Republicans see that as about $11 billion too low.
"We've been spending too much money for too long,'' said conservative Rep. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa. "We've got legitimate needs in defense and homeland security. It's time to tighten our belts in other areas.''
The remaining two-thirds of the $2.1 trillion budget is for Social Security, Medicare and other automatically paid benefits.
Lawmakers have not finished any of the spending bills, which were supposed to be completed by the time the new fiscal year started Tuesday.
Congress approved legislation on Thursday keeping agencies open through Oct. 11, with a Senate voice vote and a House roll call of 404-7.
Congressional leaders hope to finish two of the bills — for defense and military construction — before adjourning for the November elections.
The idea is that until late fall or early next year, Congress would approve a series of bills temporarily financing the rest of government at last year's levels. Under the formula the first two bills have used, that would translate to an annualized rate of about $744 billion.
Democrats and many Republicans on Congress' appropriations committees — which write the spending bills — say that is too low. They say it would shortchange the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration, Securities and Exchange Commission efforts to curb corporate malfeasance, and other areas that lawmakers have made priorities.
"That's what government is. You tax people to provide services, then you deliver those services,'' said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that writes the spending bill for education, health and labor programs.
GOP Rep. Bill Young of Florida, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, sent a memo Thursday to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., detailing the programs he said would be hurt.
It argued that keeping agencies at last year's levels for a long time would imperil proposed increases of $500 million for the Coast Guard, $3.5 billion for local police and emergency agencies and nearly $4 billion for biomedical research by the National Institutes of Health.
A long-term temporary spending bill "would have disastrous impacts on the war on terror, homeland security and other important government responsibilities,'' Young wrote. "It would also be fiscally irresponsible. It would fund low-priority programs the president has proposed to eliminate.''
Also jeopardized would be thousands of home-district projects lawmakers have inserted into early versions of the bills, the memo noted. And agencies would be forced to shoehorn into their budgets a 3.1 percent pay raise that civil servants — and members of Congress — will receive automatically.
Conservatives say the damage is being exaggerated. They argue that last year's bills got a healthy $70 billion, or 11 percent, increase over 2001, which should let agencies muddle through as this year's bills are finished.
But Democrats and moderates say holding spending to last year's levels ignores that priorities change. They cite Bush himself, whose proposed increases for defense, domestic security and other areas brings his price tag for the spending bills to $759 billion, $15 billion over the annualized rate of the temporary measures Congress has passed so far.
House leaders have not allowed a vote on any of the spending measures since July because they lack the votes to do what conservatives are demanding: pass bills limited to the amounts that Bush wants.
Rather than staging campaign-season debates that would highlight internal GOP divisions and anger conservatives, top Republicans have decided to delay final spending decisions until after the elections.