Heading into the last days of the legislative session, Republicans in Congress and President Bush are chalking up some surprising victories on federal spending.
That has put Democrats on the defensive. From a campaign pledge to change the course of the war in Iraq to tax and spending plans, Democrats are now having to scuttle key elements of their agenda. The extent of their retrenchment will become clear this week as Congress moves to pass key spending bills.
The secret behind the GOP's success? A show of unity between the minority party on the Hill and the White House.
"There's an interesting cultural argument to be made that Republicans as a party are simply more disciplined than Democrats," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "There is also a very strong perception on the part of Republicans that the president is popular with the party base, and for that reason they don't want to desert him. The third factor is that you have a president with nothing to lose – and someone who has nothing to lose in this kind of showdown is going to win."
The White House said Monday it was encouraged by concessions made by Democrats over the weekend as they crafted a $500 billion-plus catchall spending bill. The year-end measure mostly sticks within Mr. Bush's budget even as it shifts billions of dollars into politically sensitive domestic programs he sought to cut.
Since last spring, Bush has said that he would veto any spending package for fiscal year 2008 that exceeded his $933 billion discretionary spending cap. Democrats tried to add $23 billion in programs with broad popular support. Last week, they dropped it to $11 billion.
Again, Bush threatened a veto and GOP leaders in both the House and Senate said they had the votes to sustain it.
After intense weekend negotiations, Democrats are moving a new omnibus spending bill to the floor that is expected to meet the president's cap, with some add-ons for emergency spending that the White House has signaled it may support.
Next win: war funds with no strings?
In addition, Democrats are bracing for a setback that includes funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without timetables for withdrawal or other strings attached. If this scenario plays out, it’s a blow for Democrats who took control of the House and Senate this year with a pledge to change course in the war.
The end-of-year spending package includes $31 billion in emergency funding for the war in Afghanistan and equipment to protect the troops. Aides on both sides of the aisle predict that the House will passspending for Afghanistan, and the Senate will add spending for the warin Iraq. Until this week, House Democratic leaders said they could not support more funding for the war in Iraq without assurances that the president was shifting US forces out of a combat role. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the war for which the package provides emergency funding.]
The president says that he will veto any war-spending bill that includes strings. This week most Republicans and some Senate Democrats say they will support him.
"My biggest fear is that our troops won't be funded and that the Pentagon will start pulling funds from other sources, such as the National Guard and our bases here at home," says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. Without a war-funding bill this week, the Pentagon says it will be necessary to send out furlough notices affecting some 100,000 civilian employees almost immediately.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said officials still needed to comb through the mammoth 1,482-page bill, but that White House objections to Democratic policy riders – such as an attempt to ease restrictions on aid to overseas family-planning groups that provide abortions – appeared to have been taken care of.
Democrats were able to put their imprint on the bill, saving programs such as the $140 million Commodity Supplemental Food Program, targeted for elimination by Bush by giving it a 30 percent budget hike. The program provides nutritionally balanced boxes of food to about a half-million mostly elderly poor people per month.
The bill wraps together the budgets for every cabinet department except the Pentagon and is expected to pass Congress this week to allow lawmakers to head home for Christmas.
From the early days of their takeover of the 110th Congress, the new majority has aimed to peel off Republicans facing tough elections in 2008 – or build on issues so politically appealing that they could not refuse to support them.
But that strategy appears to have failed. Republican leaders have urged their caucus to stand together in the face of what they say is majority overreach.
For example, on the eve of votes last week on a sweeping energy bill, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska appealed to his GOP colleagues to back him in rejecting a $22 billion tax package on a popular energy bill, because Senate Democratic leaders broke their word to him.
"We had a deal that the Senate would not take up the House-passed taxes in that bill," he said, on the eve of the vote.
GOP unity on energy bill
Despite Bush's opposition to the tax package, Democrats expected they had the votes to move the bill. Over months of negotiation, the bill had been carefully calibrated to meet regional needs. In addition to extending tax breaks for renewable-energy sources, the bill provided tax credits for wood-burning stoves, cosponsored by Sens. John Sununu and Judd Gregg, both Republicans from New Hampshire.
But despite the regional sweeteners, the New Hampshire Republicans voted "no" on a key procedural vote on the tax package, which had to be dropped from the Senate version of the bill. GOP leadership aides credit Senator Stevens appeal – and overreach by the Democrats – for rallying GOP votes against the tax package. The energy bill, without the tax package, passed the Senate 86 to 8.
GOP leaders predict that they will have the votes to sustain the president’s objections to any bill moving in the last days of this session.
“Democrats have overpromised and underdelivered,” says Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican whip. He predicts that the last week in session will be “chaotic” and produce results that are “dramatically less than they intended to move through Congress this year.”
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.