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Spending bill stalls in Congress

A key House Democrat threatened to scuttle a compromise, accusing Bush and Republicans of not bargaining in good faith.

WASHINGTON - Efforts to pass a huge compromise federal spending bill stalled yesterday as a top House Democrat threatened to abandon the measure, accusing the White House and congressional Republicans of not bargaining in good faith.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D., Wis.) had been working with moderate Republicans to try to generate momentum for a $500 billion catchall spending bill that split the difference between increases sought by Democrats and the budget proposal submitted by President Bush in February.

But after a White House veto threat during the weekend, Obey said he would rip up the compromise bill.

Instead, he said, he would devise one using the tight domestic-spending limits set by Bush - but would reach the limits by cutting GOP priorities and stripping the measure of billions of dollars in pet projects for lawmakers in both parties.

Obey took the step after the White House and weekend news accounts suggested Democrats were willing to trade $50 billion to $70 billion in new Iraq war funds for just a few billion in domestic spending. He wants to break the perceived linkage, which had whipped up the liberal antiwar blogosphere.

Obey's move came on the day he had been expected to unveil the bill; a vote had been planned for today. The Senate had been expected to take up the bill later in the week, to add funding for Iraq and to make some final trims in Democrats' spending plans.

White House budget director Jim Nussle said Saturday that Bush would veto the omnibus spending bill sight unseen for exceeding the president's budget by nearly $18 billion.

"It is extraordinary that the president would request an 11 percent increase for the Department of Defense, a 12 percent increase for foreign aid, and $195 billion of emergency funding for the war, while asserting that a 4.7 percent increase for domestic programs is fiscally irresponsible," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D., W. Va.) said.

The bill under development would spend almost $11 billion more than Bush had proposed on domestic programs and provide $7.4 billion in emergency spending for needs such as border security and State Department operations in Iraq.

Nussle had accused Democrats of "trying to leverage troop funding for more pork-barrel spending," but Obey said the opposite was true - that the White House was unwilling to relent just slightly on domestic spending to obtain up to $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I don't see any purpose in stringing things out for table scraps," Obey said, threatening to cut off negotiations and produce a bill - at Bush's strict budget number - without any GOP help.

Obey's sentiments were not universally shared among Democrats. Byrd still hoped to work out an agreement, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) met yesterday with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Obey's comments appeared aimed in part at encouraging the sizable bloc of pragmatic Republicans supporting the split-the-difference bill to press GOP leaders to make concessions or risk losing funding for favored programs and local projects.