WASHINGTON – The top Republican in the House made a modest but important break with President Bush over the budget Wednesday, endorsing more than $6 billion in new spending.
The surprise development removed one hurdle from among the many standing in the way of Congress completing its budget work.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been perhaps Bush's most loyal ally in his months-long battle with congressional Democrats on the budget. His remarks came as a surprise to the White House, but reflected a realistic assessment of the budget battlefield on Capitol Hill.
Boehner endorsed adding funding above Bush's budget for border security, foreign aid and State Department operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and other purposes. These "emergency" funds are supposed to reflect one-time needs and not be permanent fixtures in the budget.
Boehner remains committed to supporting Bush vetoes of any catchall spending bill that tops his budget request.
"It all passes the straight-face test," Boehner said in supporting the emergency budget items. Later, a Boehner spokesman said the top House Republican doesn't necessarily support the entire bundle of emergency spending.
The emergency funding drew a protest from White House budget director Jim Nussle on Saturday as he issued a veto threat on a $522 billion catchall spending bill.
That measure, under negotiation for weeks, would have cut in half, to $11 billion, the spending increases sought by Democrats above President Bush's request for the agency budgets passed each year by Congress. The $7.4 billion in emergency money -- most of which has its strongest support from Republicans -- would have brought the total above Bush's budget to $18 billion.
"Our position has not changed -- hold government spending to the president's reasonable and responsible levels and fund our troops in the field," said White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan.
After the White House veto threat, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., threatened to tear up the omnibus bill to bring it to Bush's budget numbers, but by scalping GOP priorities and killing billions of dollars in lawmakers' hometown projects.
Obey's idea seemed to be losing momentum on Tuesday, receiving a cool reception in the earmark-craving Senate.
Under budget rules, emergency spending comes on top of budget limits set by Congress to deal with unanticipated events such as natural disasters or unexpected shortfalls in federal programs. In practice, the emergency designation has often been used to skirt budget limits.
The emergency spending package partially endorsed by Boehner totals $7.4 billion, including:
--$3 billion for border security and a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. The money has virtually unanimous support among Republicans.
--$2.4 billion in foreign aid and State Department operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nussle requested the money last month.
--$622 million for southeastern farmers requesting drought relief.
--$250 million for heating subsidies for the poor.
--$300 million for firefighting accounts.
--$400 million to cover a shortfall in food program for women and children.
There's also $146 million for a Bush administration cybersecurity initiative, $195 million to replace the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, $100 million to provide security for next year's political conventions, and $57 million to provide health care for workers harmed at the World Trade Center.
Boehner "supports spending for true emergencies like border security, wildfires and droughts," spokesman Kevin Smith said. "But there may be items designated as emergencies in the Democrats' bill that may be unacceptable to him."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that he also supports some of the emergency spending, particularly the border security initiative.
Boehner is a longtime foe of congressional "earmarks," back-home projects sought by lawmakers such as road and bridge projects, economic development initiatives and grants to state and local governments and law enforcement agencies. But he called Obey's plan to kill all earmarks "an idle threat."
"I don't think it's sustainable on his part," Boehner said. "I wonder if he asked the speaker of the House or the majority leader of the House whether they thought that was an appropriate direction to go in since they happen to be the members with the most earmarks in these bills."
When asked Tuesday about Obey's proposal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: "I think it's great. I do."
McConnell, meanwhile, vowed again to add $70 billion in Iraq funding to whatever omnibus spending measure reaches the Senate floor before Congress adjourns for Christmas. He also offered the idea of cutting federal programs across the board to bring the Senate's version of the omnibus appropriations bill down to Bush's budget level.
McConnell's critics on both the right and left said the move was aimed chiefly at protecting earmarks at the expense of other domestic programs. McConnell is a longtime member of the appropriations committee and has run ads in Kentucky boasting of his ability to bring federal bacon to the Bluegrass State.