Congress approves military, domestic funds

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-led Congress, trying to make up for its tardiness in passing essential bills to fund the government, approved more than $1 trillion on Thursday for the military, veterans’ health care and popular domestic social programs.

By passing a $600 billion bill that exceeds President George W. Bush’s request by about $10 billion, Democrats ignored a White House veto threat but fulfilled a campaign promise made last year to boost health, education and labor programs, many of which benefit the poor.

Still unclear, according to the White House’s budget office, is whether Bush will sign a second measure passed on Thursday that would give the Pentagon about $460 billion for the fiscal year that began on October 1, which is $3.5 billion less than the president wanted.

In a disappointment for the Bush administration, the military funds do not include any of the additional $196 billion Bush is seeking for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Congress will consider later.

The Pentagon bill also contains up to $2.9 billion for veterans’ health care that Bush demanded Congress approve by Sunday, the Veterans’ Day national holiday.

In San Antonio, where he visited injured soldiers, Bush said, “Congress needs to take prompt action on measures that will send a clear signal that we support our troops in the field, and we support them when they’re coming off the field.”

Recognizing it will be at least several more weeks before Congress and Bush settle their differences on spending for an array of programs ranging from food aid to the poor to domestic security efforts, Congress also approved a new stopgap measure.

It will keep government running, mostly at last year’s levels, through December 14. The current temporary funds expire on November 16.

Bush has veto threats against nine other funding bills for fiscal 2008. Altogether, the Democrats’ bills, which many Republicans have supported, would spend about $22 billion over Bush’s proposed budget.

‘FISCAL DISCIPLINE’

The Republican president did not veto any spending bills during his first six years in office, drawing criticism he permitted federal deficits to soar. But since Democrats took control in January, he has been tightfisted.

Bush sought to cut labor, health and education programs by a total of about $3 billion from last year’s levels as part of a plan to balance the budget by 2012.

House Republican leaders said they were confident they could block any Democratic attempt to overturn a Bush veto on this bill.

Democrats defended the $10 billion in higher spending, saying initiatives such as medical research, early childhood education and community development were essential investments that had to keep pace with inflation and a growing population.

They also contrasted the additional domestic funding with the huge request Bush has submitted to fight the war in Iraq, now in its fifth year.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, complained during the Senate debate: “$4.5 billion for education — that gets the veto — $158 billion for the war with Iraq gets the signature.”

Even some Republicans, such as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, refuted the White House’s portrayal of the bill as “irresponsible and excessive level of spending.” Specter said the legislation, which has broad bipartisan support, contained “some very modest increases in very important programs.”

In a warning to Congress this week, the White House said, “The president is committed to fiscal discipline” and Bush would not tolerate spending that breeches a limit he set in February.

Those remarks came the same week U.S. government debt surpassed $9 trillion, up from the $5.6 trillion level when Bush took office in 2001.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in San Antonio)