Just 35 hours after they passed a $2.8 trillion budget for FY 2007 with zero Democratic votes, House Republicans ran into a wall: the division between appropriators and fiscal hawks in their own ranks.
Before a vote Friday on a veterans spending bill, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas rose to object to the first of some $500 million in military construction projects. They were "pork projects wrapped in the American flag," he said, and they violated the budget agreement. The chair agreed with his procedural objection, and the project was out. Soon, all 20 projects funded with "emergency" money had been dropped.
But as the GOP braces for fall elections that threaten its majority, rifts in its ranks are risky, especially when they involve cutting military projects during wartime. GOP appropriators, defending the bill on the House floor, said the move by Representative Hensarling and his fellow conservatives on the Republican Study Committee (RSC) threatened "vital programs in the war on terrorism," such as $50 million for the unmanned predator program. The RSC is the largest caucus within the House Republican Party and is driving the debate over budget restraint.
"Please don't tell us you support the troops," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois, a member of the House Appropriations committee, shooting an angry glance toward the row of RSC members. "Pick another bill, not this one," he said.
The clash between fiscal conservatives and the "cardinals" on the appropriations committee flares in every budget and spending cycle. But it's been especially acute in this election year, as Republicans see their hold on the House at stake.
Standing alone, any one of the projects dropped from the $94 billion Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs FY 2007 Appropriations bill wouldn't start a row. They include construction and maintenance of military facilities and housing.
Unlike the now-infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, which became an icon for efforts to rein in member-sponsored earmarks, or pork spending, the military construction projects had been vetted by the Department of Defense and the Office of Management and Budget. None appeared extravagant.
But to come in under President Bush's spending request, the Committee on Appropriations decided to classify these 20 projects as "emergency" projects, so they would not count against the bill's spending cap.
Democrats on the committee described the move as "budget gimmickry." "None of these projects were unforeseen," wrote Democrats Chet Edwards of Texas, Sam Farr of California, and David Obey of Wisconsin in additional views attached to the committee report. They proposed paying for the projects by reducing the tax cut for people making more than $1 million a year by 1 percent, or about $1,400. The move failed in committee on a party-line vote.
But by the time the spending bill hit the floor of the House, GOP conservatives were also riled. Faced with raising the debt limit for the fifth time in the Bush presidency to nearly $9.6 trillion, they see themselves winning skirmishes but losing the war against red ink.
"We passed a budget not 48 hours ago, and already this is an attempt to circumvent it. We felt we should do something about it," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, a leading member of the RSC.
"The appropriators removed $500 million of funding for projects and declared it emergency spending, removing it from the caps. Worse, they called it a 'bridge fund' to the next [defense] supplemental. They just don't appreciate the irony," he says, referring to the flap over the bridge to nowhere.
For the first time, the FY 2007 budget resolution included a $50 billion placeholder for war costs should additional supplemental funding be necessary. To date, the nearly $400 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been mainly funded through off-budget emergency supplemental spending requests. RSC conservatives want to see more of that spending accounted for in the annual budgets.
Even the White House objected to the use of war reserve funds for military construction projects. "This funding should be used only for urgent construction directly related to the global war on terror, instead of funding regular construction projects related to long-term defense needs," stated the Office of Management and Budget.
House appropriators insisted they were in line with White House policy. "The administration requested a bridge. All we did was provide flesh on it," says John Scofield, a spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
Watchdog groups say that the Congress is on a track to ever-deeper deficits.
"What we have done in the last several years is decide we can cut taxes, fight two wars, increase homeland security, expand government entitlement benefits, and leave the bill to future generations," says Ed Lorenzen, policy director for the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization based in Arlington, Va., that promotes fiscal responsibility. "What makes all this worse is that we're getting very close to the retirement of the babyboom generation, and we should be saving and making preparations to meet the obligations for Social Security and Medicare. Instead, we're doing the opposite," he adds.
The GOP floor fight "demonstrates that the House needs new leadership," says Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee.