Will it be deal or no deal on spending bills?
Congress prepares two options simultaneously: a deal for the president and a veto override.
Washington — With its approval ratings dropping into single digits, Congress heads into a wall of presidential veto threats this week, and neither side appears near the blinking point.
The standoff covers nearly all the spending bills for fiscal year 2008, as well as $50 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that Democrats plan to unveil this week.
President Bush has signed just five vetoes during his presidency. Last week, Congress easily overturned one of them: a $23.2 billion bill to authorize new water projects, including help for the Gulf Coast, still recovering from hurricane Katrina.
But Democrats aren't expecting that level of Republican support in the spending battles to come, which are already breaking down along partisan lines.
"The water bill is the exception. The other vetoes will be sustained," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Even in a lame-duck presidency, the veto power is one of the most influential any president has – that and war-making. This president is using both to the hilt to maintain his authority to the last day."
Seven weeks into the new fiscal year, Democrats who control Congress are developing two options to get through the spending season: packaging a deal that Mr. Bush cannot refuse – or leveraging the votes needed to override his veto.
Last week, Congress passed the first two spending bills of the fiscal year, the FY 2008 Defense Appropriations and the Labor-Health, and Human Services (HHS) and Education bill. Bush has said he will sign the Defense bill, but has threatened to veto the Labor-HHS-Education bill because it spends $150.7 billion, which is $9.8 billion more than his budget calls for.
In a surprise procedural move, Senate Republicans blocked a bid by Democratic majority leader Harry Reid to combine the Labor-HHS-Education bill with the FY 2008 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill, which Bush said he wanted to sign by Veterans' Day.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Bush chided congressional leaders for letting the fiscal year end "without passing this bill they know our veterans need."
But congressional leaders had more success engineering the first veto override of the Bush presidency. Citing the importance of local projects, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted 79 to 14 in the Senate and 361 to 54 in the House to overturn Bush's veto.
However, GOP leaders noted that this bill authorized, but did not spend money, and that their members would stand firm with the White House on override votes on FY 2008 appropriations bills.
Still, Democrats hope to leverage local projects to shore up support for veto overrides. House Democrats say that if Bush vetoes the Labor-HHS-Education bill, the only option will be to strip out some $1 billion in more than 2,200 member projects.
"The choice is whether or not we are going to exercise our own judgment as an independent body about what requirements we have in this economy, or whether we are simply going to wire our buttons to the White House door," said Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, in a speech on the House floor last week.
Should the veto stand, the only option for passing a bill that meets Bush's budget would be to remove all earmarks, he said. "I would ask every serious-minded person in this body, if they really think there is a chance of a snowball in Hades that members' earmarks on either side of the aisle will survive if we wind up with the president's level of funding," Mr. Obey said.
Fight brewing on war-funding bill
But the biggest fireworks this week are likely to be over Bush's request for an additional $200 billion to fight the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that the House will vote on a four-month $50 billion package, including a redeployment timeline "aimed at transitioning our role in Iraq and bringing our troops home."
The bill will require the immediate start of the redeployment of US forces out of a combat role in Iraq with a goal of completion by Dec. 15, 2008.
If Bush vetoes that bill, she says she has no intention of bringing up another war-spending bill this year. "We are providing for the troops, but we are not providing a blank check for the president," says Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Pelosi.
Antiwar groups who have been pressuring Democrats to be more decisive with the White House on war funding say this move, which Bush has also threatened to veto, does not go far enough.
"It hands the president $50 billion without any requirement that the troop redeployment be completed," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War in Washington, a coalition calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
"It appears as if it's a way for the president to pick up an additional $50 billion for a war that most Americans oppose without having to do anything significant," he says.
This week, Congress could also take up a $105.6 billion Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill that includes $50.9 billion in discretionary spending. That's $3 billion more than the Bush administration proposed, and the president has said he would veto it.
"This whole appropriations season has been one big game of political chicken," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers For Common Sense. "Here we are in mid-November, and Congress finally just sent the first appropriations bills to the president. Even last year, which was a train wreck in appropriations, they had bills for Defense and the Department of Homeland Security signed by start on the new fiscal year [on Oct. 1]."