Democrats are working behind the scenes to develop a PR strategy for the coming veto showdown with President Bush on domestic spending, but they have yet to decide on which bills to send to the White House and when. [IMGCAP(1)]
Although each chamber has passed versions of three appropriations bills — Homeland Security, military construction-Veterans Affairs and foreign operations — Democratic aides in the House said they do not expect to go to conference and send bills to the president, particularly ones that he may sign, until they have a better sense of the appropriations endgame.
“We’re not going to start playing the game without having a game plan,” said one House Democratic staffer. Democrats are wary of sending Bush bills with extra spending like the veterans’ measure if it means they will be stuck having to slice other programs below last year’s level. “That’s not going to happen,” the aide said.
A House Democratic leadership aide concurred, saying they will not allow Bush to get the bills he wants without swallowing some of what the Democrats want. “Those bills constitute the little bit of leverage that we have,” the aide said.
Meanwhile, as Democrats try to figure out which combination of individual bills, an omnibus or various “minibuses” maximize their leverage against the president, liberal advocates are urging them to gird for battle.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union and Americans United for Change are urging Democrats to go toe-to-toe with Bush and believe they can win the coming public relations scrum. They point to a new poll they commissioned by Hart Research, which shows support of up to 74 percent — depending on the program — for spending more than Bush wants, particularly when Democrats contrast the billions they want to spend on particular programs to the money Bush wants to spend on the war in Iraq.
“If Congressional Democrats frame the issue in a disciplined way they can win this battle and the poll really shows that,” said AFSCME lobbyist Chuck Loveless.
Loveless said AFSCME President Gerald McEntee has been urging Democrats to stand tough. “The public wants Democratic leaders to stand up for the programs they care about, and we think that’s what they should do,” Loveless said.
The groups briefed House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and a number of House appropriations cardinals last week as well as House and Senate Democratic leadership staff and will be conducting focus groups on the veto fight this week.
The pending Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill, which has yet to reach the Senate floor, is the one AFSCME and other groups are most eager to see hit the president’s desk for a veto fight.
“If Republicans really think the way out of their current political crisis is supporting vetoes of popular spending on health care, jobs, and education, Democrats can only say ‘Bring it on,’” said pollster Guy Molyneux.
Having a vote on an individual bill packed with popular programs will help Democrats make their case as opposed to a giant omnibus where the spending priorities can be harder to define. The bill also represents the biggest chunk of the $22 billion in extra spending Democrats want.
Democrats are not eager to see a bloody fight that shuts down the government. “There is a widespread sentiment that we don’t want to take this to a government shutdown and make this the focus of the fall,” the House leadership aide said.
Republicans have repeatedly said they are eager for the coming battle because they see it as an opportunity to regain the brand as the party of fiscal conservatism and tag Democrats as tax-and-spenders. And the Hart Research poll showed one potential weakness for the Democrats. The poll found widespread concern among Democrats, Republicans and especially swing voters that Democrats will waste money on pork-barrel projects.
Earmarks have been a focus of Republicans in both chambers this year and this week will be a key test in the Senate. Democrats plan to use the massive and earmark-laden Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill this week as a gauge for how difficult their fight with fiscal conservatives will be on other appropriations measures this year.
Although conservatives already have taken a few stray shots at the spending bills already passed — including a brief dust-up during last week’s military construction debate over a veterans’ hospital in Hollywood — none of the three appropriations packages have been a major source of earmarks.
But much of the transportation package is made up of earmarks, and with the Minneapolis bridge disaster still fresh in the public’s mind, conservatives are planning a week of “fun,” as one GOP aide called it.
“It’s the most entertaining one so far,” the aide said, explaining that Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) will lead the charge to make “Democrats decide whether it’s more important to fund bike paths or bridge repairs.”
A senior Democratic aide said leadership expects a protracted fight with conservatives over earmarks and hopes to get a better handle on how other spending bills — including the Defense and Labor spending bills, as well as the war supplemental and the eventual continuing resolution — will progress based on this week’s work.
A GOP aide said that conservatives are picking their fights this month carefully and that flareups on the floor will be determined on the number of earmarks in each bill. “I think the activity will depend on each bill,” the aide said, adding “it’s anyone’s guess on how bad or good it gets.”
The struggle between top Democrats and DeMint and Coburn highlights a growing shift in power in the Senate, at least on fiscal issues. Although in previous years fiscal hawks have always amounted to a third party in appropriations fights, during GOP control both Republican and Democratic leadership teams also played critical roles.
But with Democrats now in power — and relations between Senate conservatives and GOP leaders strained in recent months — Democrats privately say they are more focused on the activities of DeMint and Coburn than on the Republican leadership.
“We don’t need to go talk to [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s [R-Ky.] staff to know what’s going on with Republicans. We need to talk to DeMint and Coburn,” a senior Democratic aide said.
While acknowledging that DeMint and his allies are taking their fight directly to Democrats, one conservative aide argued that the length and divisiveness of this year’s earmark fight is in the hands of Democrats. “It’s really up to the Democrats. … If they didn’t have so many earmarks, we wouldn’t have much to talk about.”