WASHINGTON – Efforts to pass a massive compromise federal spending bill collapsed Monday as a top House Democrat abandoned the measure, accusing the White House and congressional Republicans of failing to bargain in good faith.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., had been working with moderate Republicans to try to generate momentum for a catchall spending bill that split the differences between increases sought by Democrats and the strict budget submitted by President Bush in February.
But after a White House veto threat over the weekend, a frustrated Obey said he would rip up the compromise bill and devise a new one using the strict spending ceiling set by Bush — but would reach it by whacking GOP priorities and stripping the measure of billions of dollars in pet projects for lawmakers in both parties.
Obey's move came on the day he had been expected to unveil the bill, with a vote planned for Tuesday. The Senate had been anticipated to take up the bill later in the week, add funding for Iraq and make some final trims to Democrats' spending plans.
White House budget director Jim Nussle said Saturday that Bush would veto the omnibus spending bill sight unseen for exceeding Bush's budget by $18 billion.
"It is extraordinary that the President would request an 11 percent increase for the Department of Defense, a 12 percent increase for foreign aid, and $195 billion of emergency funding for the war, while asserting that a 4.7 percent increase for domestic programs is fiscally irresponsible," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
Nussle had accused Democrats of "trying to leverage troop-funding for more pork-barrel spending," but Obey said the opposite is true — that the White House was willing to relent just slightly on domestic spending in order to obtain up to $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I don't see any purpose in stringing things out for table scraps," Obey said, threatening to cut off negotiations and produce a bill — at Bush's strict budget number — without any GOP help.
"Short of having somebody in authority sit down and say, 'OK, we will work out a reasonable compromise,' I don't see any point in prolonging the agony," Obey said. "I don't see how we have any choice but to go to the president's numbers on appropriations to make clear that we aren't going to link the war with token funding on the domestic side."
Obey's sentiments weren't universally shared among Democrats. Senate Appropriations Chairman Byrd still hoped to work out an agreement, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., met Monday afternoon with GOP counterpart Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in hopes of putting the omnibus measure back on track.
The omnibus plan had been under discussion for more than three weeks and would have represented the best hope for avoiding a budget train wreck like the stalemate last year under GOP rule.
The measure under development would roll together 11 unfinished spending bills funding every domestic Cabinet agency, as well as a foreign aid budget that's trimmed back from Bush's request.
The bill contained about $30 billion for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, but Democratic leaders anticipate that Senate Republicans would have added to the measure up to $40 billion more for military operations in Iraq.
"They keep raising the ante," Obey said. "Now they're up to $70 billion (for Iraq and Afghanistan). I don't want to be part of any deal like that."
Obey's comments appeared aimed in part at encouraging the sizable bloc of pragmatic Republicans supporting the split-the-differences bill to press GOP leaders to make concessions or risk losing funding for favored programs and hometown projects.
The infusion of war funds was expected to siphon off votes from anti-war Democrats, making it extremely difficult to assembled a hoped for veto-proof coalition of Democrats and GOP moderates for the bill.
On Monday, MoveOn.org, a leading liberal advocacy group, called on lawmakers to oppose any war funding measure that does not include a timetable for withdrawing troops.
The bill under development includes almost $11 billion above Bush's overall figure for the one-third of the U.S. budget appropriated each year by Congress, as well as $7.4 billion in emergency spending for pressing needs like border security and State Department operations in Iraq.
Most of the emergency money was either requested by the White House or receives strongest backing from Republicans. Even items not officially requested by the White House budget office were requested by agency chiefs, Obey said.
"Most of that emergency spending is theirs," Obey said.
Of the $11 billion increase Democrats sought for other programs, much of the money would have gone to reverse budget cuts sought by Bush to programs such as grants to state and local governments for law enforcement, community development, and water and sewer projects.
The bill also would have provided small increases for health research, education and community health centers, among other programs. Homeland security grants to state and local police and firefighters would have received a $726 million boost, some 20 percent.