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Nussle Says Democrats to Blame for Standoff

New White House budget chief Jim Nussle complained Wednesday that negotiations over this year’s appropriations bills have stalled because Democrats can’t get their work done and aren’t yet on the same page with one another.

“We’re not going to negotiate with ourselves,” Nussle said in an interview. “In order for this to go forward, Congress has to make a decision or two about where they stand on these issues and they have to decide who is going to be speaking for them. In part my conversations with them have been trying to determine just that.”

The former Iowa GOP lawmaker said that without having even a single appropriations bill in hand, “it’s hard to know where they’re going to end up or even where they are starting from. … It’s always challenging having a conversation if you don’t know who you’re talking to and what you are talking about.”

Nussle said that the Democrats — both within each chamber and between the two chambers — have yet to agree among themselves on what to do.

“Every time I meet with different Members I get a slightly different signal about what is doable, what is planned, what they’re willing to discuss,” he said.

Democrats and the White House are about $22 billion apart on a spending limit, but Nussle noted that the two chambers have yet to negotiate agreements on individual bills and programs.

“It’s up for them to decide what their position is. On SCHIP they couldn’t do it, and that’s why they decided to send up a political document,” Nussle said, characterizing the children’s health insurance bill Bush vetoed Wednesday.

But Democrats have complained that they have sought to reach an agreement on a compromise top-line number to provide a framework for the bills and avoid vetoes, but Bush and Nussle have refused to budge.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said Wednesday that Democrats don’t expect to get all of the money they want but that the problem is the White House has been unwilling to compromise.

Obey said he met with Nussle two weeks ago and urged him to start working out the differences between the Democratic positions even before the Senate works through its bills, but he said he was rebuffed.

“His response was he was new on the job, but he hadn’t found anyone in the White House at that point who was interested in compromise,” Obey said. “I told him if that changes, please call me because we got a lot of work to do. That’s basically where we’re at.”

Obey said he even offered at one point to negotiate with the White House on which bills to send up so they can be vetoed to try to establish their fiscal bona fides, but there hasn’t been movement on that front either.

“It appears to me they are more interested in satisfying the confrontation supporters than in trying to work something out,” Obey said.

As for the complaint about knowing who to talk to, Obey quipped, “My name is Dave Obey, it is D-a-v-e O-b-e-y. He can talk to me any time. … He knows my phone number.”

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Nussle’s “got to do a better job of reading the signals. What we intend to do in the next couple of weeks is to send down appropriations legislation that enjoys broad bipartisan support, and we’ll see whether they’ll continue down the same road that they did with children’s health insurance and veto something that has broad bipartisan support, or whether they will work with Congress.”

Jesse Jacobs, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), said, “It’s disingenuous that they are waiting to see what we’re going to do since they issued veto threats prior to us acting on the bills.”

On a more upbeat note, Nussle said the negotiations over the continuing spending resolution went smoothly. “As a first step it was a good exercise. That went well. It didn’t get a lot of attention because it went so well. But it is a good sign of what we can do in the future.”

Nussle also said he is concerned that Democrats will seek to use an upcoming war supplemental as leverage to extract additional domestic spending. Obey said Tuesday that he would indefinitely delay a $190 billion war spending bill unless the White House agreed to a January 2009 goal for ending combat operations in Iraq and other conditions, while simultaneously proposing a $150 billion war surtax.

Bush allowed $17 billion in extra spending on the last war supplemental when Democrats dropped demands for a troop pullout.

“They will look for every opportunity to spend money, yes,” Nussle said. “That should always be a concern, and then after yesterday, it looks like they will look for every opportunity to raise taxes.”

Nussle noted that Bush has threatened vetoes in the past and said a veto of his own war funding request is a possibility if it is loaded down with domestic spending.

Nussle predicted that Obey’s delaying tactic may end up causing the Democrats heartburn. “They are looking for a more politically opportune time to take a vote on something that they know they are going to vote on and they have supported in the past,” Nussle said.

Nussle also took issue with Democratic charges that the $22 billion is a small amount of money relative to the nearly $3 trillion federal budget or the $190 billion Bush wants to spend on war.

“If $22 billion is only $22 billion, then why don’t we find only $22 billion in savings in entitlement programs?” Nussle asked. “The day that $22 billion is not a lot of money, I’m going home.”

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