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Budget Rejiggering

While the House Budget Committee tries to sort out its $819 billion budget blueprint this week, the question looming over the debate is whether the GOP’s stated goal of essentially freezing non-defense, non-homeland security spending can really be achieved.

House and Senate budget writers lost their first major attempt to hold spending down when defense hawks forced both chambers to reinstate money the budget would have cut from the Pentagon’s budget.

The Senate, on its way to passing its $821 billion budget plan last week, rejected a number of Democratic-sponsored amendments designed to boost funding for education, health care and the like — but the 95-4 vote restoring $7 billion that Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) had proposed cutting from defense did not exactly hew close to a fiscal belt-tightening.

Meanwhile, members of the House Armed Services Committee forced Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) to restore the comparatively modest $2 billion he wanted to trim from the defense budget.

Granted, that was defense money, which President Bush wants to see increased by 7 percent this year, unlike the 1 percent increase he’s requested for other domestic programs.

But the inability of Congress to shave even a few billion from — by both Republican and Democratic accounts — one of the most bloated and fiscally mismanaged government department bodes ill for the upcoming spending fights on veterans’ health care, special education, and emergency responders, to name a few.

Last year the answer was to take from defense. Remember, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) brokered a deal with the White House to allow appropriators to pinch a little money from defense to pay for other cash-strapped domestic programs.

And regardless of what happened last week, all signs point to it happening again this year.

Despite all the numbers flying around, the budget resolution only gives House and Senate appropriators an approximately $820 billion pot of money to work with. They get to decide how to split it up among 13 subcommittees with various jurisdictions.

That means the spending committees are essentially free to rejigger their funding schema for each subcommittee, taking some from defense here and there for other priorities.

Appropriators have repeatedly complained that the real budget busters are exactly those items the White House has said are off limits to cuts — defense, homeland security, and entitlements like Medicare.

“You could eliminate all the non-defense, non-homeland security spending, and you’d still have a deficit,” said Jon Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

Given the fact that Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was a driving force behind restoring the $7 billion and is also the chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, a re-jiggering of subcommittee allocations may be a tougher sell in the Senate.

Or maybe not. Stevens last year went along with the plan of dipping into the administration’s requested defense funds to pay for other national priorities.

On the House side, defense hawks registered a victory in getting the $2 billion in defense funds restored. And Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, has warned leaders to leave his pot of money alone. But he’s only one of 13 Cardinals.

Even though both chambers gave billion dollar nods to defense last week, little was made of the fact that Nickles’ proposals for defense spending actually surpass the president’s $421 billion Pentagon request.

“This budget really has a defense number that is $23 billion more than the president requested,” Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the lone GOP naysayer, said before the landslide vote. “Defense is very robustly funded in this budget.”

But that view was only shared by Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.).

Gregg noted that Nickles had included in the budget resolution a $30 billion reserve fund for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which President Bush was criticized for not including in his budget blueprint back in February.

Although several defense-minded Senators acknowledged that Nickles was trying to make amends for the Bush administration’s oversight on Iraq and Afghanistan and had actually gone above the Bush request, the lure of approving even more money for defense was too strong.

“My tolerance for deficit spending is higher when it comes to war issues,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who conceded that Nickles’ $7 billion cut was largely an attempt to offset the war reserve fund.

“That’s what I suspect was going on with trying to cut the current defense numbers,” Nelson said.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who cosponsored the $7 billion defense increase, indicated that the whole controversy over how to fund defense could have been avoided if Bush had simply asked for a reserve fund in his budget in the first place.

“That would have been a good idea,” said Collins. “I think Chairman Nickles made a real effort to make sure the budgeting is realistic.”

Collins also put forth the defense of the administration’s reliance on emergency spending bills that do not have to be budgeted for: “I think it’s because of the history that wars are paid for through the supplemental [spending bills] but I don’t think that’s really the best way to go about it,” she said.

The House did not include a reserve fund for Iraq and Afghanistan but assumes deficit spending of the $50 billion the White House has tacitly acknowledged they’ll ask for following the November elections.

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