WASHINGTON – A White House veto threat on a huge Senate bill combining war funding and hurricane relief has won praise from conservative allies but has invited scrutiny of President George W. Bush's funding demands for the fighting in Iraq.
The Bush administration demanded that the $106.5 billion funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to repair Hurricane Katrina damage be scaled back to Bush's original request.
The White House said in a statement that the bill contains too many items that are "unrelated to the war or emergency hurricane relief needs" and that the final House-Senate bill "must remain focused on addressing urgent national priorities while maintaining fiscal discipline."
The move is likely to force senators to drop most of their $14 billion in add-ons for farm aid, highway repairs, aid to the Gulf Coast fishing industry and other projects. The additional money had won the ire of the White House and Republican congressional leaders and scorn from conservatives allies whose support is crucial on Election Day.
The very first Senate vote on the legislation will involve cutting Bush's request for Pentagon war operations by almost 3 percent to provide about $2 billion for increased border security.
The veto promise was unusually direct and excoriated the bill on numerous fronts. It was invited by Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and was welcomed by conservatives who said the bill had gotten out of hand.
"The original request was far from pocket change," said Republican Senator Craig Thomas. "And yet, we apparently felt compelled to add significant new spending."
The bill is sure to be carved back in House-Senate negotiations next month, and Bush may very well not have to follow through on his veto promise.
The White House statement said farm aid in the bill is unnecessary after a booming 2005 crop year and that a controversial $700 million relocation of a Mississippi freight rail line would unfairly put taxpayers on the hook for privately owned infrastructure.
Republican Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran vowed to block attempts by conservatives to strip the project from the bill, saying it is essential to luring residents and business back to Mississippi's devastated coast.
To accommodate the White House's objections would require the Senate to shed numerous projects and contrasts with the way the White House dealt with lawmakers on a December disaster aid bill, which approved $12 billion in new spending not requested by Bush, a boost of almost 40 percent.
And, even as the White House raised the potential of a first-ever Bush veto, the administration asked the Senate on Tuesday for $2.2 billion more to repair and strengthen levees in and around New Orleans. The request would not add to the overall cost of the bill since it was accompanied by a decrease in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds.
The White House acknowledges that FEMA coffers would have to be replenished again in the fall instead of next year under the proposal.
Bush insists that total spending in the bill be capped at his $92.2 billion request for Iraq and hurricane relief, though he is willing to accept $2.3 billion in the bill to prevent an outbreak of avian flu. His February budget anticipated the funding, but the White House has been slow to follow up with a detailed request.
The Senate is poised to approve Wednesday an amendment by Republican Senator Judd Gregg to add about $2 billion in border security funds, financed by cutting Defense Department funds for Iraq war operations.
The border funds would be used on capital needs of the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard such as new planes, helicopters, ships, communications equipment and a project to build a fence along the Mexico border near San Diego.
Gregg said the agencies have insufficient equipment to patrol the borders and seas adequately. Much equipment is outdated or worn out, he said.
"Border security must receive the same attention as other aspects of national security, and that means committing resources," Gregg said.
Meanwhile, Democrats promised to try to use the measure to tackle the spiraling cost of gasoline. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez tried Tuesday to offer a plan to suspend the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax for two months, with its cost financed by reducing tax breaks for the oil industry. However, it was ruled out of order.
The underlying bill contains $67.6 billion for Pentagon war operations and $27.1 billion for hurricane relief, including grants to states to build and repair housing and $2.1 billion for levees and flood control projects. The funding for hurricane relief exceeds Bush's request by $7.4 billion.
To date, Congress has provided about $315 billion for the war in Iraq and anti-terror spending since September 2001.