WASHINGTON - Congressional negotiators struggled yesterday to cut hundreds of federal programs, big and small, as they fashioned a $500 billion-plus catchall government funding bill.
But accord with the White House remained elusive, even though negotiations went ahead on the assumptions that Democrats would largely accept President Bush's strict budget for domestic programs and that Bush would ease up a bit if additional funding for Iraq is approved.
In the meantime, Congress passed a bill to keep the federal government open for another week to give negotiators time to fashion the omnibus spending bill, pass it in both chambers, then adjourn for the year.
The House passed the short-term funding bill, 385-27; Senate approval later in the day sent it to Bush. It would fund through Dec. 21 the 14 cabinet departments whose budgets have yet to pass.
After months of battling, Democrats said Wednesday they would all but surrender to Bush's demand that lawmakers appropriate no more than $933 billion for annual operating expenses for departments whose budgets Congress sets each year.
Democrats hoped to make an exception for a $3.7 billion increase for veterans' health care, calculating that Bush and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill would relent on that politically sacrosanct program.
But Democrats still had differences to resolve among themselves and with Capitol Hill Republicans, as well as with the White House.
"I have no agreement at this stage with the people in the House, the Republicans in the Senate, and the White House," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).
The White House was quick to say it had not signed on to the Democrats' measure, awaiting details of the bill's final cost, the funding mix, and the resolution of its request for additional Iraq and Afghanistan war funds.
"We're hopeful and encouraged by the movement that we're seeing on the Hill right now," White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan said.
The White House does not believe the additional veterans money is needed and has previously threatened a veto if such money is not accompanied by cuts elsewhere. That approach has been widely seen as unrealistic, even by top Republicans like House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio.
But with the White House playing such a strong hand in the negotiations, Boehner now insists that Democrats stick within Bush's $933 billion figure, with exceptions for border security and a few other "emergencies."
The cuts will hit a wide spectrum of programs. The entire Interior Department budget would be frozen at 2007 levels, while foreign-aid programs such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation would be cut. But lawmakers eager to bring federal dollars home to their districts would largely see their "earmarks" preserved.
The issue of Iraq spending has yet to be resolved, though expectations were growing that Senate Democrats would relent and allow Republicans to provide up to $70 billion in new war funds to the measure without restrictions.
The Senate yesterday rejected two efforts to limit annual payments to farmers, frustrating lawmakers who had hoped this year's multibillion-dollar farm bill would scale back the government's subsidy programs.
Senators voted 78-12 last night to cut off debate on the bill. That set the stage for a final vote as early as today.
Earlier, the Senate rejected, 56-43, a bipartisan amendment to the $286 billion bill that would have limited overall farm payments to $250,000 a year per married couple, down from $360,000 now.
The amendment, which needed 60 votes to survive, was also meant to close loopholes that allow some farmers to collect higher payments and required that farmers be "actively engaged" to receive subsidies.
Later, senators rejected, 48-47, an amendment by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) that would have banned payments to farmers earning more than $750,000 a year, after expenses. Sixty votes were needed to adopt the amendment.
Overall, the bill would extend and expand crop and dairy subsidies along with popular nutrition aid programs.
Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) lashed out at Republicans yesterday, saying they want the Iraq war to drag on and are ignoring the public's priorities.
Pelosi said at her
weekly news conference: "They like this war. They want this war to continue." She expressed frustration over Republicans' ability to force the majority Democrats to yield ground on spending, energy, war funding and other matters.
"We thought that they shared the view of so many people in our country that we needed a new direction in Iraq. But the Republicans have made it very clear that this is not just George Bush's war. This is the war of the Republicans in Congress."
Asked to clarify
her remarks, Pelosi backed off a bit. "I shouldn't say they like the war," she said. "They support the
war, the course of action that the president is on."
House Minority Leader
John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) said in a statement: "Republicans have stood on principle to protect current and future generations
of Americans, whether it polled well or not. The success our troops are having in Iraq today is proof positive that our stance was the right one."