Democrats Employ Risky Budget Strategy

By: Wall Street Journal

Defense, Domestic Funds Packaged in Same Bill; Daring Bush to Veto
October 30, 2007

WASHINGTON — In a risky change of strategy, Democrats are pursuing a plan that would dare President Bush to veto a massive bill that combines spending for veterans care, education and the Pentagon.

The package, which combines three bills into one, would total almost $675 billion in discretionary spending for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Of this, more than 70% is defense-related. The rest is expected to incorporate about $14 billion more for domestic priorities than Mr. Bush has requested.

The plan is a significant tactical change. Democrats had been expected to treat the three bills individually and send them to the White House in a sequence that allowed the party to spell out its priorities.

Supporters of the new, more-unified approach say it better serves the party’s political message by melding national security and domestic issues. But they also concede it could prove a confrontational, gamble that risks alienating Republican moderates whose support is vital if Congress is to convince the White House to negotiate over domestic spending.

Education, veterans’ health care and medical-research programs would most benefit from the added $14 billion. That is about a third of the growth in defense spending over 2007 — a contrast Democrats will try to draw in the unified bill.

At the same time, the leadership wants to showcase a commitment to fiscal discipline by cutting special spending projects for lawmakers known as “earmarks” by 40% from 2006 levels, when Republicans controlled Congress.

House-Senate negotiators hope to agree on the individual pieces by Thursday, after which a final decision must be made on assembling the package. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D., Wis.) appears to be leaning toward the new option in hope of combining enough popular interests to override any veto.

White House officials say the inclusion of defense spending in the bill won’t alter Mr. Bush’s willingness to use his veto power, however.

The recent fight over child health insurance suggests that if Democrats are seen as being too political, they won’t win over the moderate Republicans they need to prevail. Just last week, for example, House Democrats failed for the third time to get a veto-proof majority for their health bill. Moderates complained Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) failed to include them adequately in shaping the newest version.

The same could happen in the budget fight now. In an interview last week, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, signaled a willingness to intercede with the White House to try to reach some compromise on spending. But when told yesterday of the new proposal to bundle bills together, he was much cooler.

“The Democrats are not going to win my support by packaging the bills together,” Mr. Cochran said.

The fact that Democrats are still debating their legislative strategy this far into the fiscal year reflects the extraordinary confusion surrounding the budget debate this fall. No one predicts a government shutdown, but the Democratic majority faces a lame-duck president who has interpreted the 2006 elections as a call to vigorously exercise his veto power against spending.

As a result, none of the 12 annual spending bills has been approved and most of the government has been left to operate under a stopgap spending resolution due to expire Nov. 16.

The heart of the dispute lies in about $22 billion to $23 billion that would be added to Mr. Bush’s requests for domestic programs such as veterans’ care, education, medical research and law enforcement. The $14 billion in the proposed package constitutes about two-thirds of this money, and Democrats hope to draw a contrast between the increases they want and the much larger increases Mr. Bush will get for his defense priorities.

The big exception is funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan military operations, which Mr. Bush designated “emergency” expenditures outside the budget caps.

The president wants almost $190 billion, of which defense negotiators were prepared to provide a down payment of up $50 billion added to the core Pentagon budget bill. But if the Pentagon budget is to be combined with education and veterans funds, Democrats won’t want any Iraq-related money in the bill since it would make it harder for their liberal members to back the package.

Write to David Rogers at

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