To avoid a presidential veto, House and Senate negotiators must lop at least $14 billion off the Senate's version of a $108.9 billion emergency spending bill that critics say is larded with pork.
If they fail, President Bush promises to issue the first veto of his presidency, and 35 Republican senators have already signed a pledge to sustain it. House majority leader John Boehner says the House will not accept a bill that spends "one dollar more than the president asked for. Period."
Tough talk. But troops in Iraq and Afghanistan start running out of money at the end of the month. And members who added the special projects - many for hurricane relief - say time is on their side.
"The president needs that defense money, and he doesn't need it in July," says Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, who with top Senate appropriator Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, led the drive to keep the member- sponsored projects in the bill. "This president shouldn't have to veto this bill when we are all on his team," he adds.
President Bush's veto threat puts congressional leaders in a bind heading into midterm elections, with control of both the House and Senate on the line. No one wants to appear to be voting against the welfare of troops in the field. But at the same time, Republicans don't want to give their base, including those alarmed at the growth of federal spending, any more reason to stay at home in November.
"A veto [would] be very useful for President Bush," says Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council. "People are getting tired by the spending and parochialism of the Congress. There is clearly a rebellion going on within the Republican Party on spending," he adds.
Since the 9/11 attacks, Congress has appropriated about $368 billion for war costs, which are rising steeply, according to the Congressional Research Service. The pending FY 2006 supplemental bill includes about $70.9 billion in new funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and $28.9 billion for hurricane relief. The bill also includes $2.6 billion for a possible pandemic flu outbreak and $1.9 billion for border security.
But what drew the fire of fiscal conservatives in and out of Congress were the earmarks added to the bill, including $700 million to relocate a hurricane-damaged Mississippi railroad line that had already been repaired and $20 million to study the profitability of raising fish on a reef.
Leading the charge in the Senate is freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma. Although his bid to yank $2.68 billion in member projects out of the Senate's emergency spending bill failed in all but one vote - a $15 million earmark to promote Gulf seafood - he says the movement to rein in spending in the GOP-controlled Congress is gaining ground.
"We're winning. We're just not winning votes," he says. "What used to be 15 votes [against member projects] is now 40 to 48." One of the insurgent Republicans who took back the House in 1994 elections on a pledge to cut spending, Senator Coburn says that the culture of "being with your buddy" on spending projects has taken over the Republican Party.
"You're not here to be with your buddy. You're here to be with your grandchildren," he adds. "By the time our grandchildren pay for the $700 million railroad to nowhere, the actual cost will be $4 billion."
Gulf Coast lawmakers say that projects such as the relocation of the CSX railroad away from the coastline will prevent losses in the next hurricane. "We have an obligation in our rebuilding and recovery plans to build back better," said Senator Lott, in a statement.
"There is a growing feeling that we've lost control of the size of the budget, but the attacks on the appropriations process have gone overboard. We have a constitutional right to control the purse strings in Congress, and we're not going to give that up," he adds.
Some lawmakers are proposing an across-the-board cut to bring the bill under the $94.5 billion that the White House has set as its limit. The House version of the bill comes in under the president's request, at $91.9 billion.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a member of the conference committee, said she will fight to ensure that "every dollar currently dedicated to the recovery of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast remains in the final bill."