House Democrats Pull War Funding From Budget Offer

The GOP is negotiating in bad faith, Obey says.

By Jonathan Weisman

    A Democratic deal to give President Bush some war funding in exchange for additional domestic spending appeared to collapse last night after House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) accused Republicans of bargaining in bad faith.

    Instead, Obey said he will push a huge spending bill that would hew to the president’s spending limit by stripping it of all lawmakers’ pet projects, as well as most of the Bush administration’s top priorities. It would also contain no money for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    “Absent a Republican willingness to sit down and work out a reasonable compromise, I think we ought to end the game and go to the president’s numbers,” Obey said. “I was willing to listen to the argument that we ought to at least add more for Afghanistan, but when the White House refuses to compromise, when the White House continues to stick it in our eye, I say to hell with it.”

    House Democratic leaders were scheduled to complete work last night on a $520 billion spending bill that included $11 billion in funding for domestic programs above the president’s request, half of what Democrats had initially approved. The bill would have also contained $30 billion for the war in Afghanistan, upon which the Senate would have added billions more for Iraq before final congressional approval.

    But a stern veto threat this weekend from White House budget director Jim Nussle put the deal in jeopardy, and Obey said he is prepared for a long standoff with the White House.

    “If anybody thinks we can get out of here this week, they’re smoking something illegal,” he said.

    Obey’s proposal would ax about 9,500 home-district and home-state projects worth a total of $9.5 billion, according to Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. Republicans inserted about 40 percent of those projects. Not all of that money could be eliminated, however. The budget of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is parceled out as home-district projects, and Congress has no intention of eliminating the Army Corps.

    Obey would not specify where the remaining billions would come from to reach Bush’s bottom line, beyond saying the money would be shaved from the president’s priorities. One possibility would be funding for abstinence education. Other targets could be nuclear weapons research and development in the Energy Department, NASA programs and high-technology border security efforts that have come under criticism for being wasteful and ineffective, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

    Obey’s proposal did not move the White House to negotiate, spokesman Tony Fratto said. “Different day, different Democrat, different direction. Our position hasn’t changed,” Fratto said.

    House Republican leaders would be happy to take Obey’s offer on spending, GOP aides said yesterday. But rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties could revolt. Home-district projects – known as earmarks – were stripped from the fiscal 2007 spending bills early this year, after Democrats took control of Congress and hastily disposed of budget bills their Republican predecessors had not passed. Earmarks were also eliminated from the 2006 appropriations bill that funded labor, health and education programs, the biggest domestic spending bill of the year.

    “There are a lot of people who were very disappointed last year when nobody got any earmarks. If they do it again for the second year in a row, it will be a very bitter pill to swallow,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), an appropriator who complained that he could lose $400,000 he needs for the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial celebration, slated to begin Feb. 12.

    LaHood is not the only Republican appropriator who is angry at the White House and at GOP leaders who have refused to negotiate with Democrats on domestic spending levels. In recent days, Rep. David L. Hobson (Ohio), ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of energy and water projects, had a heated discussion with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), arguing that Boehner should come off his hard line.

    Rep. James T. Walsh (N.Y.), another senior Republican appropriator, took to the House floor to argue: “If the proposal is to split the difference, to reduce the amount of spending above the president’s request by $11 billion, I would advise the president to take yes for an answer.”

    But most Republicans are expected to fall in line, as the GOP leadership pushes to regain the mantle of small-government conservatism. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), another member of the Appropriations Committee, said Republican lawmakers will face no political jeopardy for not bringing money home for their districts, because they can simply blame Democrats.

    “The smartest thing for [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi to do is to realize the White House always wins these spending contests,” he said, advising her to “cut your losses, get out of town and say Bush is still relevant” to the legislative process.

    That still leaves the war-funding issue unresolved. Democratic leadership aides on Capitol Hill concede that at some point, Republicans can add some money for Iraq as a stripped-down spending bill winds through Congress. But plans for a quick end to the showdown appear to be fading.

    “It is extraordinary that the president would request an 11 percent increase for the Department of Defense, a 12 percent increase for foreign aid, and $195 billion of emergency funding for the war while asserting that a 4.7 percent increase for domestic programs is fiscally irresponsible,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said.