If you hear the click of a ballpoint pen and then a scratching noise coming from the White House this summer, it could be the sound of President Bush vetoing money bills passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress.
The federal appropriations process is seldom smooth, even in the best of years. But with bluster rising on both sides, it appears that the White House and Congress are headed for a struggle over the budget that's bitter even by Washington standards.
To the administration, the fight is about fiscal restraint. The House and Senate have added about $22 billion to the president's fiscal 2008 discretionary spending budget, officials say.
"I put Democratic leaders on notice that I will veto bills with excessive levels of spending," said Mr. Bush in a June 16 radio address. Democrats say that for the most part the extra money just restores cuts made in previous years – and that in any case it is a pittance compared to what is being spent in Iraq.
"We will not be lectured on fiscal responsibility by a Republican party that has driven us into record deficits and added more than $3 trillion to the national debt," said House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland at a June 15 press conference.
Discretionary spending is the part of the federal budget that in theory can be easily changed every year in the congressional appropriations process. It includes the normal operations of most government agencies. It does not include Social Security and other big entitlement programs that dole out money on a semiautomatic basis.
The budget Bush submitted to Congress earlier this year included about $932 billion in discretionary spending. By administration calculations, that figure represents an increase of 6.9 percent – almost triple the rate of inflation.
Congress has increased this top line to $954 billion. The individual appropriations bills now working their way through the legislative process reflect this increase.
It's this top-line total that is important, insist administration officials. Bush will sign individual appropriations that are larger than he requested, as long as other such bills contain offsetting reductions.
"We're not going to try to micromanage the process," said the outgoing director of the Office of Management and Budget, Rob Portman, in a meeting with reporters June 19.
Absent such offsets, Bush will uncap his veto pen, says the White House. And officials insist the vetoes will be upheld. Some 147 House Republicans have pledged to support the White House efforts to curb spending, according to the administration. That is one more lawmaker vote than needed to sustain a veto in the House.
Democrats complain that, among other things, the White House veto threat reflects political expediency. The Bush team has suddenly got fiscal religion, critics say, after years of a relatively lax attitude toward spending.
The White House is not threatening to veto the military construction and veteran affairs appropriations bill, despite the fact that it contains extra money added by Congress for veterans' healthcare. The reason, say critics, is simple: Money for vets is very popular.
The bills that have drawn specific veto threats include the energy and water development appropriations, the foreign operations bill, and the homeland security bill, among others.
Democrats argue that their additions to this year's money bills are minor. They've simply added back cuts in past years from such programs as Head Start, they say.
In addition, if you subtract defense, discretionary spending has been fairly flat in recent years, according to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analysis.
Then there's the question of who wins the veto stare-down.
It's true that 147 House Republicans pledged to stand behind Bush for fiscal solidarity, says Stan Collender, a federal budget expert at Qorvis Communications. And fiscal conservatives are yearning for the administration to be more tight-fisted, following such past actions as Bush's push for an pricey prescription-drug benefit.
But a general pledge is not the same thing as voting to uphold the president's veto of the homeland security bill. "I find it hard to see how a president with approval ratings as low as his is going to get a lot of support for vetoing bills that are important to people," says Mr. Collender.
With the end of his presidency in sight, Bush may be trying to reestablish a legacy as a fiscal conservative. But most members of Congress face reelection fights.
"The president and congressional Republicans have very different agendas," says Collender.