WASHINGTON – President Bush's top aides on Thursday urged Congress to support his request for $74.7 billion for the emerging costs of war with Iraq and other anti-terrorism efforts. Senate Democrats said money for state and local governments was insufficient and not getting there quickly enough.
The president's plan, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told the Senate Appropriations Committee, "supports the administration's objectives to support our troops abroad and increase our safety at home."
Ridge was joined at the hearing by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose department will receive the bulk of the emergency funds to carry forth the war in Iraq.
But Democrats focused on the $2 billion in the request to help local and state law enforcers better prepare against terrorist threats. "I'm concerned that they are not getting the resources they need and were promised by the administration," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the panel. "Experience is showing that the money is not getting to the local responders."
"My state is desperate for money," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Across the Capitol, seven subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee were hearing administration witnesses ranging from FBI Director Robert Mueller to officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The administration's push for the money comes a day after the Republican-controlled Senate dealt a blow to Bush's call for $726 billion in tax cuts through 2013 to spur the economy. By a mostly party-line 56-44, senators approved a budget for next year that would limit the tax reductions to $350 billion -- a vote many said was colored by the war's price tag and the possibility of the federal budget shortfall piercing a record $400 billion this year.
"We're in deficit. We've got a war," said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., a moderate who voted to slash the tax cut's price tag.
Aiming to meet Bush's call for Congress to complete the war spending bill by April 11, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., and his Senate counterpart, Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, planned for their panels to vote on initial packages next Tuesday.
Even so, members of both parties have predicted changes in Bush's proposal to give himself, Rumsfeld and other administration officials wide discretion -- with limited congressional input -- in deciding details of how the money would be spent. His request for $2 billion to help local police and emergency agencies is also expected to grow.
Underscoring the pressures for extra cash, five organizations representing state and local governments wrote to congressional leaders Wednesday calling Bush's $2 billion request "only a beginning." The groups, which included the League of Cities and the National Conference of State Legislatures, said they needed at least $9 billion.
Also still being discussed was an effort by some lawmakers to add assistance for the nation's airlines.
Some top Republicans want an aid package of up to $3 billion, though Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said leaders have not decided whether to include the funds now or wait for later legislation. Democrats want any such package to also help laid-off airline workers.
The Defense Department would get the bulk of Bush's proposal, $62.6 billion for the initial costs of the war with Iraq and U.S. operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It also contains $7.8 billion for aid to Israel, Turkey and other American allies, and $4.2 billion for domestic security, including the $2 billion for emergency workers.
Meanwhile, the Senate's 56-44 passage of a $2.2 trillion budget for 2004 puts the next decision on Bush's proposed tax cut in the hands of House-Senate bargainers. They, too, hope to be finished by April 11, when Congress is supposed to start an Easter recess.
The House approved a budget last week with Bush's full plan for reducing taxes by $726 billion through 2013. Republican leaders writing a compromise say they will push the tax number as high as possible.
Approval of the Senate budget was an unvarnished setback for Bush on one of the pillars of his domestic agenda. It also spotlights the limits on Bush's abilities to persuade lawmakers to support his policies at home, even though the war with Iraq has helped keep his popularity high.
The White House issued a Bush statement calling it "unfortunate" that the Senate's tax figure fell short.
"We will work to ensure that the final House-Senate budget provides the growth measures American workers deserve," Bush said.