WASHINGTON – Less than a week after winning a spending clash, President Bush is sparring again with lawmakers who want to shift money from defense and foreign aid to domestic programs such as education and flood control.
The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee has prepared a plan to cut about $9 billion from Bush's request for the Pentagon. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would spread that money among the departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture and elsewhere as he prepares to advance this year's round of spending bills.
An additional $2 billion would be cut from Bush's request for foreign aid.
Cochran is not planning to award any of the money to the Homeland Security Department, whose budget would face a near-freeze.
The move is running into a fresh threats of a veto by the White House, which promises to reject legislation that "significantly underfunds the Department of Defense to shift funds to nonsecurity spending."
If past patterns hold, Bush is going to win the battle in the end.
Just last week, for example, a veto threat was successful as Congress passed a $94.5 billion bill for war spending and hurricane relief. That capped a long debate in which the threat forced the Senate to drop most of its $14 billion-plus worth of add-ons such as farm aid and help for the Gulf Coast's seafood industry.
"We all know it's just a game," said Tom Gavin, spokesman for top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Still, lawmakers — especially senators — are chafing at Bush's demands for domestic agency budgets passed by Congress each year. Despite Congress' reputation for spending profligacy, Bush and GOP leaders have succeeded in clamping down on the operating budgets of Cabinet agencies except for the Defense Department and Homeland Security.
The House has shifted $6 billion — $4 billion from defense and $2 billion from foreign aid — to domestic programs that Bush had promised to cut by about 1 percent. That drew objections from the White House, but not an outright veto threat.
The latest threat was against the House-passed Pentagon spending bill, if it's not generous enough. But it actually was aimed at the Senate Appropriations Committee, which was set to approve on Thursday the first of 12 spending bills for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
The Agriculture Department was line to be the beneficiary, with 2 percent more than the House's spending version.
The biggest single winner over Bush's budget would be labor, health and education programs, potentially getting $5 billion more than Bush's request.
Bush's request was so tight, supporters of these programs say, that spending for the annual education and labor-health-education bill remains below levels enacted two years ago.
More than one-half of the Republicans in the Senate endorsed a plan earlier this year by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to add $7 billion to health and education programs. The House has fought off this move.
"We need the $7 billion," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "We got $5 billion. We're going to be much less than what we need, less than what we were in (fiscal) 2005."
Though disappointed, Specter says he is going to accept the $5 billion rather than pick a fight with Cochran.
Meanwhile, there's little indication that Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is going to free up the Senate to pass more than a few spending bills before the start of the 2007 budget year. That would spare GOP senators up for re-election from difficult votes on domestic agency budgets before Election Day.
The defense and homeland security bills are expected to make it through before the elections.