WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats on Tuesday reversed President Bush's cuts to education, health research and grants to local communities as they gird for Bush's first-ever veto of a regular appropriations bill.
By a 75-19 vote, the Senate gave bipartisan approval to a huge health and education spending bill that will likely be the first of the fiscal 2008 spending bills Democrats will ship to the White House to start a veto battle involving the budget for almost every domestic agency.
It promises to be a protracted battle, and Bush has a decided advantage, but Democrats have seized on the massive health and education measure as the best measure with which to challenge Bush and his GOP allies in Congress. The measure totals over $600 billion and reverses a raft of cuts sought by Bush to health research, special education and funding for grants to community groups that help the poor, among others.
The confrontation with Bush over domestic programs — many of which are also popular with Republicans, as demonstrated by the margin of passage — will come on the heels of the bruising veto battle over a children's health insurance bill. Programs funded by the health and education bill affect schoolchildren, workers, the poor and disabled, the unemployed and those with special needs or drug and alcohol problems, among others.
"In passing this bill, Democrats in Congress will say that the president doesn't care about children or education or health research," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. "We've all heard these tired old lines before. The facts demonstrate the president's strong and consistent commitment to children, education and health research — and the American people are smart enough to know that there is no such thing as a free lunch."
The Senate measure, which exceeds Bush's budget by more than $10 billion, must be reconciled with a companion House measure passed in July before the legislation can be sent to Bush.
Battles over anti-crime funds, transportation and housing and perhaps the homeland security budget will follow.
"We are arguing about whether or not to invest further moneys in education, health care, (anti-crime grants), border security, port security, environmental protection," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "The President has asked for $196.4 billion of supplemental funding this year for Iraq and Afghanistan ... while he argues as to whether or not we ought to increase ... cancer research, diabetes research, heart/lung research for our citizens."
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., countered, "The spending hike they are asking for in this one bill, if allowed to continue at the same rate, will cost the American taxpayer $120 billion over the next ten years."
Bush is intent on issuing vetoes and has so far rebuffed Democratic pleas for negotiations. But Democrats and some Republicans hope that once he gets a few vetoes out of his system, the White House will signal a willingness to compromise.
For starters, much of the additional money goes to restore White House cuts. Many of those cuts were rejected by Republicans when they controlled Congress.
House Republicans have demonstrated they have the votes to sustain Bush vetoes, though on some votes, including the House version of the health and education bill, they barely produced the more-than-one-third required.
Some lawmakers predict the president will be unyielding and the battle could drag into next year.
"I don't see it getting worked out. I really don't," predicted Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.
More than any other of the 12 annual spending bills setting agency budgets for the 2008 budget year, the health and education measure defines the differences between Bush and Democrats controlling Congress.
Bush sought to cut $4 billion from last year's levels of the $152 billion portion of the measure that Congress adjusts at its discretion. The rest of the bill mostly funds inflationary increases to Medicare and Medicaid.
Democrats instead added almost $11 billion to Bush's request, including almost $4 billion more than the president sought for the Education Department. For research at the National Institutes of Health, Democrats added $1 billion over 2007 funding; Bush sought a $289 million cut.
And Bush sought to eliminate the $630 million budget for the Community Services Block Grant program, which provides the federal seed money for community action agencies that offer job training programs, emergency housing, food aid and other services to the poor.
Senate Democrats are also seeking a $259 million increase for community health centers, a $224 million boost for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a $1 billion increase over the 2007 level for Title I grants to local school districts, an almost 8 percent increase.
During several days of Senate debate, Republicans did not offer a single amendment to make specific, substantial cuts to the measure to bring it closer to Bush's budget. But they did attack the bill over its bevy of earmarks, home-state projects sought by lawmakers.
According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based budget watchdog group, the bill contains more than 1,000 earmarks totaling $562 million. A move by anti-pork crusader Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to strip out every one of those projects was killed by a 68-26 vote.