WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Tuesday were optimistic of winning a vote to provide $70 billion for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a year-end budget deal between the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Bush.
The Senate brought up an underlying $516 billion omnibus appropriations measure — funding 14 Cabinet agencies and troops in Afghanistan — just hours after the House passed it Monday night. Bush appears likely to sign the bill if his GOP allies can add up to $40 billion for the war in Iraq.
Debate was to wrap up within hours, even though GOP conservatives remained unhappy with spending levels that exceed Bush's budget and a secretive process that produced a 1,482-page bill with almost 9,000 pet projects sought by lawmakers.
"Congress refuses to reign in its wasteful spending or curb its corruption," said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz.
With Senate Democrats signaling they'll agree to Bush's demand for at least a $70 billion infusion of funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, other conservatives muted their criticism.
"I do think the president has a victory here," House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters. But the win was hardly clear-cut for Republicans hoping the president would emerge from the monthslong battle with Democrats over the budget with a result that would more clearly demonstrate to core GOP voters the party's commitment to fiscal discipline.
In the end, Democrats have succeeded in smoothing the rough edges of Bush's February budget plan, which sought below-inflation increases for domestic programs other than military base construction and contained numerous cutbacks and program eliminations.
Democrats were able to fill in most of the cuts by shifting money from the Pentagon and foreign aid budgets, adding "emergency" funding above Bush's budget "cap" and adding future-year funding for federal education programs.
The White House, which maintained a hard line for months, has been far more forgiving in recent days, accepting $11 billion in "emergency" spending for veterans, drought relief, border security and firefighting accounts, among others. Other budget moves added billions more.
"Congress did come down to the president's overall top line," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "And in regards of the emergency spending, most of that spending would have passed on an emergency basis anyway. It's not added into the baseline of the budget."
The bill passed the House late Monday. Under an unusual legislative two-step, the Iraq portion of the bill would be returned to the House, with Republicans supplying the winning margin. That vote, if successful, would send the entire omnibus bill to Bush for his signature.
The result would be a twin defeat for Democrats, who had vowed not to allow additional Iraq war funding without conditions and had spent months on legislation to add $27 billion to domestic programs, an almost 7 percent increase.
Democrats succeeded in reversing cuts sought by Bush to heating subsidies, local law enforcement, Amtrak and housing as well as Bush's plan to eliminate the $654 million budget for grants to community action agencies that help the poor.
To find the money, lawmakers shifted $6 billion from Bush's plans for defense, foreign aid and military base construction accounts. Veterans would get $3.7 billion more than Bush requested, supplied on an "emergency" basis above Bush's budget cap.
Democrats were able to put their imprint on the bill, restoring Bush-sought cuts to state and local law enforcement grants, aid to community action groups and airport modernization grants.
Democrats also added funding for food programs, subsidies to community development banks and Homeland Security Department grants to first responders.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group that opposes so-called pork barrel projects, counted 8,983 such "earmarks" worth $7.4 billion. These hometown pet projects include economic development grants, aid to local transit and police departments, and clean water projects, among many others.