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Funding frenzy

In an election year, Congress is ignoring an unpopular president's calls for spending restraint.

May 24, 2008

The supine 110th Congress finally stood up and began to roar. By trying to keep lawmakers from doing what they must -- spending money to help needy people in an election year -- President Bush has created his worst nightmare: a hugely popular, hugely expensive “war” bill stuffed with goodies to delight just about everyone. Alas, it will leave the next president with a cracking debt hangover.

Until now, Bush has managed to prevent the Democratic-controlled Congress from enacting most of its agenda. Even as the tally of unmet domestic needs grew and the cost of the unpopular Iraq war skyrocketed, Bush succeeded in beating back spending bills with a combination of potent rhetoric, a categorical veto threat and loyal Senate Republicans. Congress did manage to override Bush's veto of a water resources bill in November, but it declined to use its power of the purse to stop Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq. Then the president's plunging approval rating, three congressional GOP election defeats and the sub-prime mess lamed him prematurely. Now it's payback time.

This week, Congress overrode Bush's veto of the pork-packed $300-billion farm bill. Then, Senate Republicans joined in approving a $212-billion war supplemental bill, of which $165 billion is for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush had asked for $108 billion. That amounts to the Senate declaring the president irrelevant or worse. Next week, the House will have to reconcile its version with the Senate's -- if it can.

Bush's refusal to compromise with Congress has backfired. He unwisely brandished the veto at such popular and deserving measures as the GI Bill to educate veterans and a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits for jobless Americans. Congressional leaders retaliated by making their version of the war bill veto-proof -- just as they veto-proofed the farm bill -- by bribing wavering lawmakers with millions of dollars for their favored programs.

Some of the Senate's extras are either necessary or desirable: a program to counter improvised explosive devices; flood control and levees for the still-vulnerable Mississippi River Delta; better enforcement at the Food and Drug Administration; international crisis aid; and $75 million to address traumatic brain injury among veterans. Some should raise eyebrows, such as $400 million for rural schools. Unlike the House, which had the courage to vote for a "millionaire's tax" to fund the GI Bill, the Senate was silent about how it planned to pay.

This is no way to fund either guns or butter. Our nation needs both -- but it also needs spending restraint.

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