WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats backed away from a spending showdown with President Bush on Thursday, dropping plans to tie the Pentagon budget to a labor and education measure that Bush has vowed to veto.
As negotiators were beginning to fashion the first spending bill to send to Bush for the budget year that began Oct. 1, Democrats instead planned to wrap a huge education, health and labor bill with a popular measure funding veterans' programs and military base construction.
Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the decision to drop defense spending from the bill was a sign of the Democrats' willingness to compromise.
"What that means in dollars is that we would have gone 88 percent of the way toward the preference of our Republican friends," Obey, D-Wis., said at the onset of a House-Senate meeting on the spending bills. "I hope they can come our way to the tune of 12 percent or so."
Republicans still objected to bundling together veterans and education funding, echoing the White House position that Congress should send separate spending bills. Obey said doing so made sense to move the budget process along and protect Congress' prerogative to set spending levels.
"We do not feel an obligation to make the president's desire to cherry pick as easy as possible," Obey said.
The move to separate Defense Department spending from the bill came after Republicans on Wednesday accused Democrats of cynically using the military's needs to promote a domestic package the president considers bloated.
In a letter to Democratic leaders, 44 Republican senators charged that money for troops and veterans was being "held hostage for partisan purposes."
"Our soldiers and veterans already have done so much for our county," they wrote. "The Democratic congressional leadership should not now cynically use them to shoulder a bloated 'minibus' funding bill up Pennsylvania Avenue and wrest billions in excessive spending."
Democrats counter that Bush has sought politically untenable cuts to the huge bill funding education, health research and job training. He also opposes increases sought by Democrats to the budget for veterans health programs but has signaled he won't veto them.
"I would point out the president did not send us separate bills," Obey said. "He sent us one combined budget. If we were to respond in kind, we would have sent him one combined omnibus appropriations bill."
With many Republicans backing the White House, the plan appeared unlikely to resolve Congress' appropriations struggles, which continue as the 2008 fiscal year enters its second month. The strategy carries political risks for both parties.