WASHINGTON – Playing a Washington game of chicken, President Bush challenged lawmakers to use their abbreviated pre-holiday session to get several spending bills to him in a fashion that won't force his veto.
The president told Congress he wants a war-spending bill he can sign, a fix to the alternative minimum tax, a hurdle that could affect 20 million taxpayers, an extension of a terrorism surveillance legislation and the remaining 11 of 12 annual spending bills.
Congress has "important work to do on the federal budget," Bush said in a Rose Garden statement that did not include questions from reporters. "Only one of the 12 spending bills has made it into law."
Bush warned that without checks, Congress will pile "the remaining bills into one monster piece of legislation that they will load up with billions of dollars in earmarks and wasteful spending. Now is not the time to burden our economy with wasteful Washington spending."
He also chastised the Legislature for going on vacation but using a procedural maneuver that would keep them from recessing so that he could not make any recess appointments.
"In fairness, Congress was not entirely out over the past two weeks. ... Congressional leaders arranged for a senator to come in every three days or so, bang a gavel, wait for about 30 seconds, bang a gavel again, and then leave. Under the Senate rules, this counts as a full day. If 30 seconds is a full day, no wonder Congress has got a lot of work to do," he said.
Partisan feelings are especially intense and fights are brewing on multiple fronts between Democrats who control Congress and the White House. Democrats are trying not to stumble over must-do legislation to fund government agencies and programs, and prevent millions of upper middle income taxpayers from falling prey to the AMT.
They vow to bring the appropriations process to a close, even at the price of giving in to Bush's strict funding levels for domestic programs like education, grants to local governments and energy research. But many congressional watchers think it's just as likely Congress will limp home for Christmas having passed yet another temporary stopgap funding bill.
Bush is insisting that Congress pass his war funding request in full and is expected to devote much of December to attacking Democrats for trying yet again to condition additional money on a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. His war-related requests so far this year have totaled almost $200 billion. The House has passed a $50 billion, three-month funding bill that would condition payment on a timetable for troop withdrawal.
"It's unconscionable to deny funds to our troops in harm's way because some in Congress want to force a self-defeating policy, especially when we're seeing the benefits of success.
Trying to lob blame back at Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the president could have had a war spending bill by now if he had agreed to less.
"President Bush fails to grasp that the way to get things done for the American people is by sitting down to negotiate our differences, not by posturing from the Rose Garden. The more he issues these reckless veto threats and mischaracterizes our efforts, the more evident it becomes that President Bush is not interested in addressing America’s priorities," Reid, D-Nev., said in a a written statement.
Democrats also counter that troops will get the needed money for current operations, but that a change in administration policy is necessary to make sure U.S. forces don't stay in Iraq indefinitely.
Congress also needs to pass a temporary fix to the AMT, or 20 million taxpayers will get hit with tax increases averaging $2,000. House Democrats insist on paying for the AMT fix with revenue increases elsewhere. Republicans have promised to block that approach in the Senate. The common wisdom holds that any AMT fix will ultimately add to the deficit.
Bush said Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wrote Congress two months ago to urge them to act on an AMT fix. The president said Paulson noted that "putting off the AMT fix could delay $75 billiion worth of tax refund checks."
Even assuming the AMT is fixed, Democrats are likely to take a political hit. Delays in addressing the minimum tax are keeping the IRS from preparing tax forms and computer programs for the upcoming filing season, which means million of taxpayers counting on early refunds will be getting them later.
Democrats announced agreement Friday to move ahead with energy legislation that would raise automobile fuel economy standards, increase the use of ethanol as a motor fuel, and boost the use of alternative fuels such as wind and solar technology, by electric utilities. If the bill passes and is signed by Bush, the energy reforms would join a slender roster of Democratic accomplishments, including a minimum wage increase and increases in college aid.
Other items on a crowded December agenda include:
—Terrorist surveillance. The Senate could vote as early as this week to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which dictates when the government must obtain court permission to conduct electronic eavesdropping.
—Farm bill. The Senate hopes to finish a bipartisan bill extending farm subsidies and food programs after the legislation bogged down over GOP attempts to add unrelated tax provisions.
—Children's health care. Negotiations should continue on legislation to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years.
With time so precious, leverage is flowing to Bush, who's armed with both a veto pen and enough Republican allies in the Senate to sustain filibusters against bills they don't like. When legislation — such as the AMT fix — simply has to pass, that leverage gives Republicans the edge in driving the outcome.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.