WASHINGTON – President Bush's quest to rein in congressional spending (search) is losing ground to Senate old-timers in his own party who understand the power of the purse and aren't reluctant to use it.
Tight spending caps that virtually every Republican endorsed this spring for domestic programs and congressional pork-barrel projects are now being evaded to the tune of almost $12 billion.
This is precisely what Bush, who has presided over deepening deficits (search), has said he does not want.
Instead of enforcing cuts of almost 1 percent on domestic programs whose budgets Congress passes each year — as these lawmakers promised when voting for the budget in April — the Senate Appropriations Committee has actually increased their budgets by about 2 percent.
Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is now leading the charge to rewrite the budget (search).
Last month, he orchestrated a shift of $8 billion from the defense and foreign aid budgets to the domestic side of the ledger. He also has blessed another $3.3 billion in budget trickery to free up funds for health research, medical training programs and heating subsidies for the poor, among myriad programs.
It's an open secret that the Pentagon cuts will probably be restored through emergency funding that's supposed to pay for the war in Iraq. That would be a de facto way to exceed the $843 billion spending cap for the 11 appropriations bills (search) for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The budget gamesmanship was on full display Thursday as the Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a bill to fund the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.
That bill contains $145.7 billion in spending for programs Congress funds each year. That's $3.8 billion more than requested by Bush and $3.2 billion more than passed by the House last month.
Most of the additional labor and health funding was "paid for" by pushing $3.3 billion in benefit payments for the very poor into a future budget year, a budget trick that was tried last year but ultimately dropped.
Such gimmicks "are, at best, false budgeting," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a conservative who voted to approve them anyway as a member of the go-along, get-along Appropriations panel.
The moves make it easier to advance the spending bills through the committee, which has an unquenchable thirst for spending. But these steps have drawn the ire of conservatives in the chamber who see budgets of agencies like the departments of Health and Human Services getting money they believe the Pentagon needs.
"What they've done is cut defense $7 billion over what the budget said so they can put money into the Labor-HHS bill and other areas and then they take $7 billion from the cushion supposedly to pay for the war and fund the Defense Department's routine needs," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "They're not being honest with the American people."
The mostly behind-the-scenes jockeying also has offered a lifeline to numerous programs whose budgets would be frozen, cut, or eliminated altogether under the spending plans favored by the White House and the House.
The House has passed all 11 of its appropriations bills for next year and has stuck closer to Bush's bottom line, although it has moved about $6 billion from defense and foreign aid over to domestic programs.
"It's fairly clear that, at least on the Senate side, there is less than robust support for fiscal discipline," said Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., himself a top appropriator. "But hopefully the House will keep us on track and the White House will join in on that."
At stake is the future of scores of federal programs, ranging from Amtrak subsidies, medical training, industry research grants, and grant programs for low-income schools and to help communities provide health care to the uninsured.
The White House takes a dim view of the budget gimmicks but appears content to hold its fire until the spending bills are negotiated in the fall. At that time, veto threats will give the White House much more leverage.
"We will go into the conference negotiations on appropriations bills this season in good shape and with an opportunity to get either at or very close to the budget limits the President has requested," said White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten.
But the administration has bungled estimates of how much it will cost to provide veterans with medical care. Just Thursday, Bush asked for $2 billion more for the Veterans Administration health care budget, with $300 million for the current year and $1.7 billion for next year. That's on top of a $975 million request for current needs that passed the House just two weeks ago.
Some appropriators hope that the administration's credibility gap on veterans spending will give them greater leverage in their dealing with the White House later in the year.