Bush's budget showdown

Posted: Aug 26, 2002 12:00 AM
When Congress reconvenes after Labor Day, President Bush will face a showdown over his efforts to maintain some control over the federal budget. The confrontation has been forced by feisty conservative Republican back-benchers in the House who often are not on the best of terms with either their own party or the Bush White House. But next month, their efforts could save the president. This will be the endgame of the July revolt forced by the Republican Study Committee (formerly the Conservative Action Team or CATs). The committee's mostly junior congressmen staged a House-style filibuster, preventing passage of smaller appropriations bills until the huge Labor-Health and Human Services bill is passed. They had sniffed out intentions of the appropriators: fatten up the smaller bills, using up an unstated store of extra money. Then, when Congress finally gets to Labor-HHS and popular programs as time runs out on the session, harassed lawmakers will have no choice but to increase spending. The result: a budget well beyond the president's specifications, and a victory for Democrats who still believe in the Harry Hopkins mantra of tax, spend and elect. The Study Committee made its point and won promises for the Labor-HHS bill to come up early in September. The issue, however, remains in doubt. The appropriators want to expand Bush's overall request by at least $9 billion, much of it added to this bill. Indeed, there are signs that they will renege on last month's promises to the Republican rebels. Such maneuvers usually are shielded by the appropriators, but the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee -- Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin -- sometimes is too candid. Obey, one of the smartest and toughest House members, tipped his real intentions on the House floor the evening of July 16. Obey, an old style liberal who likes high taxes and high spending, objected to spending caps in the Republican-drafted budget resolution and the Bush tax cuts. As the Republican rebels stalled the Interior appropriations bill, Obey declared: "We will be able to pass the smaller bills, such as the Ag bill, the Treasury-Post Office bill, the military construction bill, this bill and a few others. Come September, guess what! Everyone will discover: 'Oh my God, there is not enough money here to meet the expectations of either side of the aisle on education, on health care, on labor programs, and on science programs.' " Actually, Bush's budget (for which the appropriators have pummeled Budget Director Mitch Daniels) is hardly draconian. The president's Labor-HHS request of $130 billion is $6.6 billion or 5.3 percent above last year. It would mean total Labor-HHS spending would increase by $20.7 billion or 18.8 percent since the last election. The increase since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 is an astounding 94 percent (compared to 47 percent for defense). But Obey and his allies want more, for Labor-HHS and the entire budget. Rep. Patrick Toomey, a 40-year-old second-term Study Committee member from Pennsylvania who has limited himself to three terms in Congress, argued that delaying Labor-HHS would be folly. He and the Study Committee chairman -- Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona -- arranged the slowdown on the other bills. Speaker Dennis Hastert decided to join the rebels rather than fight them. The fight is far from won. Last Thursday, Toomey and Shadegg were in Afghanistan, but the non-partisan staffers of the Appropriations Committee were hard at work on Capitol Hill. They insisted preparations for the Labor-HHS bill were still insufficient for early committee consideration as promised. Presumably, Hastert can talk the Republican Appropriations chairman, Rep. Bill Young of Florida, into bringing up the bill promptly. Obey still would stand a good chance of finding Republican votes to fatten the bill -- perhaps including Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio, chairman of the Labor-HHS subcommittee. Even if the Bush request is not increased in the House, the Democratic-controlled Senate (with high-spending Sen. Robert Byrd heading the Appropriations Committee) will up the ante on the Labor-HHS bill. But if the House does not support him, the president will be in poor position for a veto. His budget and his entire economic program will hang in the balance next month.