WASHINGTON – The Republican-run Congress is showing its desire to spend billions of extra dollars for highways, welfare and civil servants even as party leaders promote tight spending restraints in the $2.4 trillion budget they are writing.
The House overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding measure Wednesday backing a 3.5 percent pay raise next year for the government's civilian workers, the same amount President Bush proposed for members of the military. Should that increase become law, it would cost $2.2 billion more than the 1.5 percent raise for civilians that Bush recommended.
House leaders were hoping for approval this week of a $275 billion, six-year highway bill (search) that has drawn a veto threat from White House aides because they consider it too expensive. The widely popular election-year measure would spend at least $19 billion more than the White House wants.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted 78-20 to increase child-care spending for welfare recipients by $6 billion over the next five years. Thirty-one of the Senate's 51 Republicans, including Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., voted for the measure despite opposition by the administration.
"Many of the lawmakers who talk the talk on spending are not walking the walk," said Brian Riedl, who studies the budget for the conservative Heritage Foundation (search). "Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. They have control of the White House, the House and the Senate."
The votes came as House-Senate bargainers try completing a compromise budget for next year that will claim to halve this year's expected deficit of nearly $500 billion - a record by far - in fewer than five years.
Their chief difference was over a Senate provision - opposed by the House - requiring tax cuts to be paid for by either spending cuts or tax increases.
About 20 House deficit hawks, including GOP moderates and conservative Democrats, wrote to budget bargainers to propose a compromise exempting this year's expected tax cuts from required savings. The letter stopped short of threatening to oppose a budget without a deal.
Both budgets gradually would reduce deficits chiefly by assuming healthy revenue increases as the economy grows and imposing tight restraints on spending by most domestic programs.
"We want to control spending and we think that can and should be done," House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, said Wednesday.
It is tough for lawmakers to pare spending, especially in an election year. Forming a political lightning rod were proposals to save $13 billion in the House budget and $3 billion in the Senate's from benefits such as Medicaid (search) over the next five years - a period when these programs are expected to spend $7.2 trillion.
Asked about congressional spending on Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said lawmakers were in the early stages of their budget process.
"We'll continue working closely with Congress to make sure that taxes are not raised, and to make sure that we fund our priorities - from winning the war on terrorism to protecting the homeland, to strengthening our economy - and then show spending restraint elsewhere in the legislation," he said.
While the need to control spending is a Republican tenet, the party has not always found it an easy principle to translate into reality.
In recent months, Bush and the GOP-dominated Congress have enacted major spending increases for Medicare, farmers and war - and the temptation to bring extra dollars home is only heightened with elections barely seven months away.
"Actions do speak louder than words, and congressional actions this week point to higher deficits rather than deficit reduction," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition (search), a bipartisan group that advocates balanced budgets. "It shows how difficult it is to actually make these spending choices."
Bush wants the highway plan to cost no more than $256 billion, which is $38 billion more than the cost of the last six-year plan. The Senate approved a $318 billion version last month, which has also drawn a veto threat.
The White House says the House bill would cost $284 billion if contracts lasting more than six years were factored in.
According to House GOP aides, their chamber's highway bill would cost $5 billion more than the House version of the budget assumed.
The bill claims to raise $12 billion in revenue by cracking down on people who evade federal fuel taxes and revamping levies on alcohol-based fuels. Supporters say those funds will pay the added expenses, while critics say the money is part accounting gimmicks, part a pile of cash sure to be spent.
The extra child-care expenditures in the Senate welfare bill are offset by $6 billion from extending expiring customs fees. That pot of money is a favorite source of funds for lawmakers, appearing in this year's corporate tax bill (search) and in bills last year cutting taxes for military personnel and overhauling Medicare.
The House budget makes no room for higher pay raises for civil servants, while the Senate plan endorses the idea.