WASHINGTON – Hoping to speed approval of war funds, House-Senate negotiators were to meet Tuesday evening on legislation to pay for the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and for hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast.
After missing a Memorial Day deadline, negotiators hope to seal agreement this week. The White House says a money crunch is threatening military operations and training accounts, especially for the Army, and could slow training and equipping of Iraqi soldiers.
"It's imperative that Congress finish its work and get this to the president to sign," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "This supplemental went up in February. It's now June." He said the Army will impose a civilian hiring freeze Tuesday and has cut spending on spare parts, transportation and travel.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., and Senate counterpart Thad Cochran, R-Miss., are leading the talks and have agreed to live within a White House demand that the emergency funding bill be limited to $92.2 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and hurricanes — plus $2.3 billion to combat bird flu.
The underlying bill would provide about $66 billion for Pentagon costs such as military operations and maintenance, weapons procurement, personnel and an initiative to locate and disarm roadside bombs. Another approximately $20 billion would go for hurricane relief and reconstruction, including new and rebuilt flood control projects for New Orleans, housing aid for Louisiana and replenishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund.
The overall limit has meant dumping or dramatically scaling back Senate initiatives like $4 billion in agriculture disaster assistance to farmers to help them deal with high fuel prices and damage from floods and droughts last year. The move promises to dismay Senate GOP sponsors of the farm aid such as Conrad Burns of Montana, embroiled in a very difficult re-election bid.
An additional $648 million obtained by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to beef up security at U.S. ports is to be dropped, while $1.2 billion in aid for the Gulf Coast fishing and seafood industry obtained by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., will be sharply scaled back.
Meanwhile, a conservative group announced an ad campaign in three states aimed at pressuring Senators to drop several controversial homestate projects from the bill. Top among the targets of Americans for Prosperity is a $700 million Senate plan to pay CSX Transportation to abandon a recently repaired freight rail line to Mississippi to use the right of way for a new East-West highway.
"A bill to fund our war against terrorism is held hostage to pork-barrel spending," Duane Sand, a veteran of Iraq, says in the ad, to be run in Rhode Island, Michigan and West Virginia.
In fact, negotiators are expected to eventually drop the Mississippi rail line relocation as well as the bulk of more than $14 billion in Senate add-ons unrequested by President Bush. Still, FEMA funding would be cut below the White House's $7.2 billion request to fund lawmaker priorities, which could mean FEMA might need another infusion of cash before Election Day.
A key remaining challenge for negotiators is devising a compromise border security plan.
Bush's $1.9 billion border security plan is focused on hiring 1,000 new Border Patrol officers and sending 6,000 National Guard troops to help secure the Mexican border. A rival Senate plan, sponsored by Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and also budgeted for $1.9 billion, focuses on capital needs such as helicopters, Coast Guard vessels and vehicles.