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Congress is in a tug of war over Iraq funding, domestic spending

Democrats face a veto of the $500-billion package and outrage from liberals over funding for the war.

December 11, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just days before funding for the federal government is set to run out, congressional Democrats continued to struggle Monday to put together the most important domestic spending legislation since they assumed the majority in January.

Democratic leaders are working on a gargantuan package that will likely top $500 billion and would boost funding for Democratic priorities such as school aid and healthcare.

But they are laboring to defuse a veto threat from President Bush, who has adopted a new role as fiscal watchdog since the Democratic takeover and has promised to block any legislation that exceeds his budget requests for the year.

At the same time, senior Democrats are facing a restive liberal base incensed by talk that a budget deal would provide more money for the war in Iraq without attaching any conditions aimed at forcing troop withdrawals.

Additional war funding would represent a major concession to the president, who has demanded that Congress abandon its push to impose a schedule for bringing troops home.

On Monday, one of the country's leading antiwar groups, MoveOn.org, called on Democratic leaders to maintain their demands that any war funding be tied to a withdrawal timeline.

"Americans elected a Democratic Congress in 2006 to end the war in Iraq. A blank check for billions in war funding moves us in the wrong direction," said Nita Chaudhary, MoveOn's Iraq campaign director.

Democratic leaders continued to attack the Bush administration as their increasingly bitter conflict over federal spending intensified.

"The White House should cease its political posturing and work with the Congress to complete the appropriations process," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).

But with the approach of a Friday deadline -- when a temporary funding resolution for the federal government expires -- it appears increasingly likely that congressional Democrats will once again have to give in to the White House.

"You can't just leave the troops sitting out there," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said, acknowledging that Democrats had few good options to force the president's hand.

Democrats writing their first spending bills in 12 years have tried to add more money for new roads, healthcare for veterans, public housing and other domestic programs, in many cases reversing cuts proposed by the White House.

But this has combined with the effort to put conditions on war funding to create a budget breakdown more than two months into the new fiscal year.

The Iraq legislation has stalled in the Senate, where Republican lawmakers have successfully blocked war-related measures all year. And thus far, Democrats have sent the president only two of the 11 spending bills needed to fund the federal government.

Last month, he signed a $471-billion defense bill that pushed up military spending by more than 9.5% compared to the year before, even though it included only a fraction of the funding needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same day, Bush vetoed the other spending bill, which would have allocated $150.7 billion for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services, and substantially boosted funding for Head Start, reading and math instruction, and other programs targeted for poor children.

Since then, the 10 spending measures have remained mired in partisan conflict.

Democrats are trying to lump them into a single omnibus measure that would fund everything but the operations of the Pentagon. They have talked about giving the president additional funding for the war in Iraq in exchange for his support of additional funding for Democratic domestic priorities. One draft put spending at about $522 billion, about $18 billion above what the president requested.

From 2001 to 2006, the president signed at least 50 spending bills passed by Republicans that exceeded his budget requests, according to House Appropriations Committee records.

But this year, Bush, who has presided over a budget deficit every year of his presidency, is trying to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility. He has said he will veto anything that exceeds the $933 billion he budgeted in discretionary spending (the measure he vetoed in November was $10 billion over his proposal).

Over the weekend, White House budget director Jim Nussle reemphasized the veto threat, calling the Democratic proposal "not fiscally responsible."

Democratic leaders are looking for allies among moderate Republicans. But GOP leaders are so far sticking with the president. On Monday, a frustrated House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) told the Associated Press that he would look to cut GOP priorities to bring the budget bill's cost below the president's total.

At the same time, as senior Democrats talk of adding in money for the war in Iraq, they are dealing with a rebellion on the liberal wing of their caucus. On Monday, three leaders of the Out of Iraq caucus sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other Democratic leaders a letter urging them not to include war funding without conditions.

"Congress should not approve another dime for any measure for continuing the occupation of Iraq that does not include a clear timeline for safe and timely redeployment," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), one of the letter's authors. "We have the power to end the occupation of Iraq."

noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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