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Democrats Set Approps Plan

Labor-HHS Will Go First

House and Senate Democrats finally have a strategy for dealing with the president’s threats to veto spending bills, and they hope it will serve as an extension of their successful public relations campaign on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

With $152 billion in funding for items such as cancer research, hospitals, early education initiatives and worker safety, Democrats believe they will reap political rewards in sending the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies spending bill to the president as the first appropriations measure to reach his desk.

Democrats believe Bush’s expected veto would allow them to continue to paint the administration and Capitol Hill Republicans as out of touch with the needs of average Americans, as they have done since the president vetoed the SCHIP bill nearly three weeks ago.

“We’re still on the same theme, and that is helping working families deal with the challenges of education and health care,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said last week of the connection between the Labor-HHS bill and the SCHIP veto. He added, “It’s funding for programs that we think are very important and define us as a party. So of course we would like to debate that bill” with the president.

One potential snag could come in negotiations between the House and Senate over the number of earmarks, or targeted spending for lawmakers’ pet projects, in the bill. House Democrats pledged early on to cut earmarks in half, but the Senate has not scaled back as drastically.

“Our concern is we don’t want to give the White House any excuse on this bill or the others, and [want them to] be forced to defend their desire to cut education, health research and health care funding,” said one House Democratic leadership aide. “So we are working with the Senate on it.”

Coming on the heels of months and months of struggling and failing to bring an end to the Iraq War, Democrats have been buoyed by the success they’ve had in their SCHIP fight despite the expected failure to override the president’s veto last week.

And if the president makes good on his veto threat, the same liberal advocacy groups that ran television ads and held rallies around SCHIP are poised to use their money and bullhorns for a replay on Labor-HHS.

“If he vetoes Labor-H, I think for sure we would participate in a veto override campaign,” said Brad Woodhouse of the labor-backed Americans United for Change. Woodhouse added that Democrats are on a roll message-wise, given that “the two most unpopular things in the country are the president’s and Republicans’ stance on the war and the president’s and Republicans’ stance on SCHIP.”

Some progressive groups already have heard the clarion call to push for veto-proof vote margins in both chambers on the Labor-HHS measure. The Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities targeted House Members this summer and already has been going after GOP Senators in advance of this week’s vote on Senate Labor-HHS bill.

“There’s an easy correlation to be made between SCHIP and Labor-H,” said ECAP’s Cara Morris Stern. The president, she said, “is vetoing children.”

ECAP has hosted events aimed at pressuring Senators to vote for the bill in the home states of GOP Sens. John Sununu (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Pete Domenici (N.M.), among others.

But Woodhouse cautioned that the contours of whatever campaign they mount would depend on whether the Senate could produce a veto-proof majority for the bill of at least 67 votes. The House passed its bill in July just one vote shy of the two-thirds needed for an override.

Beyond the political benefits Democrats see, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also indicated there is a practical element to making Labor-HHS the first spending bill, because the measure is $9 billion more than the president requested — the key reason the president has vowed to veto it.

“If this president is going to veto legislation, which he said he is going to do, this would be a good one to send him because what the president is complaining about, in actual dollars, is in this bill,” Reid said on the floor last week.

Sending the bill, or any bill, to the president also could serve as a way to get the White House to finally sit down with Democrats to negotiate an overall top-line spending cap. The White House has said it wants Democrats to shave $22 billion from their discretionary spending budget, and Democrats have resisted, saying they want to negotiate with the president. White House officials have indicated they want Congress to send them some appropriations bills before they agree to talks.

One Democratic Senator, who requested anonymity, echoed Reid’s point that the Labor-HHS bill represents the largest single slice of the spending disagreement with the president, saying Democrats hope sending it to him will “get him to the bargaining table.”

The Senator added, “Ultimately, we’ve got to negotiate an agreement that allows us to get our appropriations work done.”

Democratic aides in both chambers cautioned that while Democratic leaders have largely settled on sending the Labor-HHS bill to the president first, some Democrats are still resisting the strategy in favor of others.

Some favor sending the president the Homeland Security spending bill, which Bush also has threatened to veto, as a way to burnish Democrats’ national security credentials — particularly in light of the majority’s current difficulty in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act fight. Others have recommended pairing the Labor-HHS bill with the military construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations measure as a way to pressure the president to sign it, aides said.

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