Despite chest-thumping by conservatives, upcoming battles over the federal budget will center less on new spending cuts to defray the costs of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and more on salvaging promises made earlier this year to trim the growth of government programs.
The roster of spending cuts put forth by conservatives contains few new ideas that seem likely to pass and many oft-rejected old ones.
Instead, the White House (search) and Republican leaders are focused on preserving a budget plan that Congress passed in April calling for a modest $35 billion cut over five years in the growth of programs for the poor such as food stamps and Medicaid.
Under Congress' arcane budget process, though, it's a whole lot easier to pass a budget blueprint in the spring — which only sets an outline for future bills to follow — than it is to adopt subsequent legislation to actually impose the cuts.
Some GOP moderates are resisting carrying out the $35 billion in promised cuts in the wake of hardships placed on tens of thousands of low-income families by the hurricanes.
"It's very hard to reduce the rate of growth of spending around here," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (search), R-N.H.
Already, $62 billion has been approved for hurricane aid, with much more on the way. The Pentagon's open tab for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is soon to top $300 billion, so whatever cuts Congress finds will barely make a dent.
House and Senate GOP leaders are determined to go ahead with the planned budget cuts, though they've delayed acting on them until next month. Now, they are enlisting conservatives to push back against the balky moderates.
Conservatives and the White House are likely to have greater success at a separate effort to draw the line against efforts by Senate oldtimers to slip a few extra billion dollars to domestic agencies as part of the normal gamesmanship played during the annual budget process.
That won't actually save money. Instead, conservatives will have to fight to make sure that more generous colleagues don't bust the budget with accounting tricks or by borrowing from the Pentagon to bulk up the budgets for domestic agencies like the Education and Health and Human Services departments.
The Senate Appropriations panel, led by Chairman Thad Cochran (search), R-Miss., has shifted $8 billion from the defense and foreign aid budgets to domestic agencies whose budgets President Bush proposed to cut by about 1 percent on average. It's an open secret that the Pentagon cuts would probably be restored through emergency funding that's supposed to pay for the war in Iraq.
Another $3 billion in budget trickery was used by Senate appropriators to free up funds for health research, medical training programs, home heating subsidies for the poor and other myriad programs.
These budget tricks have earned veto threats from the White House and scorn from the House.
"We're going to have to stick to this budget. We're going to have to reduce the defense transfer and we're going to have to drop the gimmicks," said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield. "That's our starting point and ending point."
Congress is supposed to have finished the annual appropriations process — which involves passing 11 bills through House and Senate and shipping them to President Bush — by the start of the 2006 fiscal year this Saturday.
It won't even come close. Only two of the 11 bills have been signed by Bush, and the Senate hasn't even considered four of its spending bills, including the largest two bills — one funds the military, the other health and education programs.
Instead, later this week — probably Thursday — lawmakers will vote themselves a six-week extension and fund most federal agencies on a stopgap basis at or just below current levels.