WASHINGTON – Despite numerous veto threats, senators in both parties have loaded up President Bush's war funding bill with a grab bag of domestic programs, including work permits for immigrant farm labor and heating subsidies for the poor.
The Senate was scheduled to begin debate on the measure Tuesday, just days after a key panel added more about $28 billion to Bush's budget request for this year and next, with almost $50 billion more for a big expansion of veterans benefits under the GI Bill over 2010-2018.
The new GI Bill and Democratic priorities like extending unemployment benefits are simply the big-ticket add-ons, both of which have drawn veto threats. There's also $50 million to track down child predators, $400 million to help rural schools and $350 million fight western wildfires, just for starters.
Senators are acting as if the war funding bill coming to the floor Tuesday is the last train leaving the station, and, as a result, have added billions of dollars for pet programs and hitched on several policy "riders" as well. Few if any other spending bills are likely to come before the Senate this election year, which makes the supplemental measure an even more attractive vehicle for carrying spending proposals that would stall otherwise.
The White House is fighting the add-ons much more vigorously than it did during last year's bruising war funding debate. Then, it accepted $17 billion in spending that Bush didn't ask for as the price for getting an Iraq war funding bill that didn't tie his hands on the war.
Now that it's clear that Democrats won't insist on a troop withdrawal timeline, they're including add-ons of their own. Hutchison won approval of $100 million in grants to local law enforcement to fight drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It's the type of situation White House budget director Jim Nussle had in mind last month when he chided senators for a "sky-is-the-limit mind-set" regarding "the desire of some in Congress to load up this troop funding bill with tens of billions in additional spending."
Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri moved to keep open three "veterans business resource centers" with $600,000 in taxpayer funds. One of the centers, naturally, is in St. Louis; the others were in Flint, Mich., and Boston.