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Administration Will Face Fight on Control of Funds

While House and Senate appropriators resume their game of chicken over committee organizational issues this week, they’ll also be grappling with their more traditional responsibilities, given the White House’s presentation Monday evening of an $82 billion war supplemental spending bill. [IMGCAP(1)]

Both the House and Senate Appropriations panels are scheduled to hear from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this week about why the administration needs another infusion of cash for troops continuing to try to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as funding for a hodgepodge of diplomatic and humanitarian efforts related to fighting terrorism.

Crafting the mammoth measure and pushing it through both chambers will be the first test for the two newly installed Appropriations chairmen, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

While Cochran and Lewis have both pledged to try to keep the supplemental “clean,” or free from non-war, non-terrorism requests, that can often be a tricky proposition these days when so-called pork-barrel spending for a local fire department or police department could be portrayed as emergency “homeland security” funding.

“I know it’s definitely his desire to keep it clean,” Jenny Manley, Cochran’s spokeswoman, said of the supplemental.

The new chairmen also still have to deal with formidable shadows cast by the men they recently replaced: Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). Both former full committee chairmen head up their respective Defense subcommittees, which will be responsible for about $75 billion of the supplemental request.

It remains to be seen whether the new sheriffs in town will share the same dynamic Stevens and Young did. While Stevens chaired the Senate committee, House GOP appropriators often worried that if their bills didn’t have any pork, but the Senate’s had a lot, that they would lose out in conference committee.

While that has been somewhat representative of the regular appropriations process, appropriators in recent years have generally kept supplemental spending bills, particularly those for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, free of pork-barrel projects, according to David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste.

Williams said he hasn’t “seen any recent shenanigans on supplementals, especially on the Iraq war.”

“There are so many other opportunities” to lard up regular appropriations bills, and even some authorization bills, with pork, Williams said, noting that Cochran and Lewis are expected to be no less resistant to pork on future appropriations bills than their predecessors.

With Congress leaving town next week, Lewis wants to have the supplemental approved by committee and passed by the House before March 18, with a conference report getting to the president by the end of that month. Traditionally, the Senate waits for the House to act on spending bills first and then takes them up shortly thereafter, making Lewis’ goal appear doable.

The supplemental request that moves through Congress is also expected to include $900 million in relief funds for Southern Asian nations devastated by the late-December tsunami as well as a controversial $200 million in aid to Palestinians as a response to their recent successful elections.

Democrats, in the meantime, are waiting with bated breath for the president’s supplemental so that they can pick it apart and assail what they see as the failure of the White House to adequately prepare an exit strategy for the war in Iraq.

No doubt they’ll be pointing out that passage of the latest installment of war funding will bring the war’s on-the-books cost to around $272 billion, and that no end to the nearly $5 billion a month war is currently in sight. Despite the relative ease with which Iraqis were able to vote for a constitutional congress last month, Democrats have also been highlighting the fact that violence is still taking the lives of American troops and Iraqi guardsmen, police and civilians after nearly two years of war.

And they’ll probably make a stink about how the National Guard hasn’t been funded as generously as other military branches, despite the fact that guardsmen and reservists make up nearly half of deployed forces.

Then, of course, there is the question of how much flexibility over supplemental funds the administration will ask for. In the past, the White House has sought unprecedented leeway over how to use appropriations for the war, but even Republicans in Congress have resisted loosening the purse strings.

But for all their criticism, most Democrats will likely fall all over themselves to vote for the supplemental, lest they be seen as weak on defense or not in favor of helping out the troops.

“Obviously, Democrats are going to support the troops,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Meanwhile, Lewis still plans to move forward today on a plan to reorganize the House Appropriations Committee into 10 subcommittees rather than 13. Committee spokesman John Scofield said holding a formal organizational meeting of the committee, where subcommittees are designated, is necessary in order for the Defense and foreign relations subcommittees to hold official hearings this week on the president’s supplemental request.

But Cochran is showing no signs of a rush to mirror the House’s restructuring plan, though his spokeswoman said Cochran hopes to have some resolution to the standoff between the House and Senate this week.

That likely means another meeting of Senate GOP appropriators today or Wednesday, though none had been scheduled as of press time. Last week, Senators rejected the House plan to eliminate the subcommittees on the District of Columbia, legislative branch, and Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies.

Though Scofield notes that Lewis is “always willing to listen to ideas from our friends in the Senate,” Senate GOP appropriators were upset by the House chairman’s unilateral decision to more forward with his reorganization before coming to an agreement with the Senate.

The possibility that the Senate and House may have mismatched subcommittees is still very real. However, the Senate is considering plans to make their structure more compatible with the House, in order to avoid having an all-encompassing omnibus spending bill at the end of the year.

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