WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Tuesday to protect homestate projects added by some of its most senior members to an Iraq war and hurricane relief funding bill as the tide turned against efforts by spending hawks to strip them out.
The powerful Mississippi delegation defended a controversial plan to give Northrop Grumman, which owns the Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, perhaps $200 million for hurricane-related losses that its insurers are unwilling to pay.
Tom Coburn, R-Okla., pressed the bid to strip the provision, saying it's wrong for taxpayers to pay for losses that should be borne by insurers and that Congress should stay out of the battle between the giant defense contractor and its insurers.
But by a 52-47 vote, the Senate supported GOP Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran and former majority leader Trent Lott — who grew up in the shadows of the yard — after they vigorously defended the idea.
Cochran said the shipyard had huge costs not covered by insurance, especially for costs associated with its inability to fulfill contracts after Hurricane Katrina devastated the shipyard. Delays in getting the shipyard back in business would make ships more expensive in the long run, he said.
Earlier, senators by a 59-40 vote supported a plan by eight-term Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye to give two of his state's sugar growers $6 million in aid to recover from flood damages caused by recent torrential rains.
While the battle continued between the spending hawks and the old-timers, the Senate quietly added about $1.6 billion — for a total of $3.7 billion — to the measure for levees and other flood control projects in and around New Orleans.
But unlike President Bush's request last week, the new flood control funds would not be offset by cutting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's chief disaster relief fund.
The price tag of the bill, therefore, has grown to more than $108 billion, despite Bush's promise to veto any measure that exceeds his request of $92.2 billion for the war and hurricane relief and another $2.3 billion to combat avian flu.
The Senate is expected to pass the bill Wednesday.
As the full Senate battled over homestate projects added to the bill in excess of Bush's request, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on a proposal to give the president a scaled-back version of the line-item veto that he could use to battle such "earmarks."
The White House pitched the idea as a way for Bush to weed wasteful spending from appropriations bills that he has little choice but to sign.
But Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia led the Democratic assault on Bush's line-item veto idea, saying it would shift too much of Congress' cherished constitutional power of the purse to the executive branch and give the president a new club with which to threaten lawmakers.
Under the traditional line-item veto, presidents get to strike individual items from a bill without having to veto the entire measure.
An earlier, stronger version of the line-item veto passed in 1996 under the new Republican majority in Congress, but the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional two years later because it let the president single-handedly change laws passed by Congress.
Bush is now pressing for a modified, weaker version. Instead of being able to strike items from bills, he would send one or more items back to Congress for an up-or-down vote.
Present law lets Congress ignore such proposed rescissions, but under the Bush proposal, lawmakers would have to vote on them. If majorities in both the House and the Senate agreed with the president, the cuts would take effect.
White House budget official Austin Smythe said the bill is designed to "give the president a tool to reduce unnecessary or wasteful spending" as well as "improve accountability and cast a brighter light on spending items that probably would not have survived had they not been included in a much larger bill."
That's too much leverage to give the president, Byrd said, warning that presidents could use the authority to bully members by singling out projects of his political opponents.
"He could use this new leverage to squeeze members," Byrd said. "It is a weapon that the president could use to threaten and reward, and with the threat of that Damocles sword hanging over each member's head, he could expect to have his way on many issues."
Despite his vehemence Tuesday, Byrd supported the core idea when it was offered as a Democratic alternative to the tougher line-item veto law more than a decade ago.
Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the proposal would have to be modified to ensure presidents could not impound funds or clutter the congressional agenda with endless votes and debates on spending cut proposals.
The bill faces a challenging road ahead in Congress. It almost certainly faces a filibuster in the Senate. And in addition to opposition from Democrats, there is considerable reluctance from Senate GOP traditionalists such as Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who worry it may give the president too much authority.