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Zero Plans in Place to Move Dozen Approps Bills

Increasingly resigned to the likelihood that no amount of negotiation will stop President Bush from vetoing spending bills, Congressional Democrats are trying to figure out how best to package bills for the coming fight while hoping the White House undergoes a sudden change of heart. [IMGCAP(1)]

“In the next couple of weeks, you’re either going to see a breakthrough with the White House or start to see some vetoes,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said of the impending showdown over the 12 annual spending bills that fund 15 Cabinet departments and various agencies.

Indeed, Democrats have given themselves seven weeks of breathing room — courtesy of a stopgap spending measure that prevented a government shutdown on Oct. 1 — but they have not yet come up with a Plan B to counter the president’s threats to veto as many as eight appropriations bills because they exceed his overall budget by about $22 billion. A bicameral Democratic leadership meeting will be held today to try to get the two chambers on the same page, but no decisions have been made about which bills to send or in which order, aides said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he wants to send as many as three bills, which he wouldn’t specify, to the president in the next couple of weeks. Whether those bills encounter vetoes or enactment largely depends on the Democrats’ ability to sweet-talk the White House.

It’s an effort that so far, by the Democrats’ own admission, has met with bleak results.

“Sen. Reid strongly urged the president to reconsider his opposition and to sit down with Democrats to resolve this,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide of a bipartisan meeting at the White House last month. “And he was rebuffed.”

House Democrats issued a similar lament. “They have shown no interest in working with us,” said a senior House Democratic aide.

With no clear endgame in sight, Democrats have been loath to send Bush any spending bills — even those that he will sign, such as the measure that includes veterans’ benefits — lest they limit their flexibility on the remaining pieces of the puzzle. “There’s no way we tie ourselves to a number and then have to gut other programs,” a House Democratic aide said. But they also have yet to send him bills that will get vetoed as they continued to hold out hope, however faint, for a deal on the overall spending limit.

“Why send bills to the president to get vetoed?” asked the Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Bush originally balked at Democratic demands for $22 billion in emergency domestic spending earlier this year, but ended up signing much of the extra spending into law as part of the first Iraq War supplemental.

Still, Democrats aren’t even trying to work out their own differences in House-Senate conferences yet. While the Senate has named conferees on all four bills they’ve passed, the House has yet to match them. This week, the Senate also hopes to complete a mammoth Defense Department spending bill, as well as a measure funding the departments of Commerce and Justice and science-related programs.

However, timing on the Defense bill could be complicated by Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-Wis.) insistence on offering an amendment to cut off funding for all but a limited military mission in Iraq. Reid had sought to keep the Defense spending bill free of Iraq War-related proposals.

Meanwhile, the delay in conferences has led to rampant speculation on both sides of the aisle that Democrats are planning to tie their domestic spending increases to funding for the Department of Defense and for veterans — two bills viewed as difficult for the president to veto and politically perilous for Republicans to oppose.

The senior Senate Democratic aide said those options certainly are on the table, but said that’s only because everything is on the table.

“We’re at that point where those decisions and that planning will begin,” said the aide, who said Democrats still have yet to decide “which bills to send, when to send them, how many to send.”

And of course, talk of how to override any vetoes also is on the table, the aide added.

“The leadership on both sides [of the Capitol], including the leaders of both Appropriations Committees, are taking their time to decide what the best strategy is,” the aide said.

But Republicans have seized on the lag time and on the possibility of a Defense or veterans’ bill becoming the vehicle for other domestic spending priorities.

“We will get to the point this fall where Democrats are holding up the funds for troops in order to force Republicans and the president to accept pork spending,” one Senate Republican leadership aide said. “This is not a debate they can win, and it is one we welcome.”

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, began complaining last week about the military construction-veterans’ affairs bill in particular, which has been stalled by House Democrats despite enjoying near-unanimous support.

But Democrats say they hope to use the priorities they’ve laid out in each of the 12 spending bills against Bush and the Republicans if those measures are blocked. For example, the senior Senate Democratic aide said the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies appropriations bill draws the brightest line between the social issues Democrats care about and the president’s reticence to spend on such items.

“Getting that bill to the president to show those differences … is a message we should and will make,” said the aide, who indicated that measure could follow Senate debate on the Defense and Commerce, Justice and science-related spending bills.

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