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Approps Plan Shifts Again

Multiple Bills Set to Move

As House and Senate Democrats spar internally over the best way to force President Bush to sign spending bills he has threatened to veto, they continue to shift their appropriations strategy and are looking at tying labor, health and education funds to money for veterans and possibly defense.

“I think what we’re trying to do is show that the president and Republicans have the wrong priorities,” said a senior House Democratic leadership aide. “They would like to separate out Defense spending and separate out veterans and then reject what we’ve done on education and health care, but our point is all of this stuff is worthy. You can’t just pick and choose and neither can the Republicans.”

However, the aide said the strategy of combining the Defense appropriations measure, the military construction-Veterans Affairs bill, and the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies legislation remains tentative.

Even as that three-bill strategy was emerging, Democratic sources said Monday that some Members were having second thoughts about including the mammoth Defense spending bill in the package. Instead, leaders may decide to just join the Labor-HHS bill with the military construction-Veterans Affairs measure, those sources said.

Indeed, Democrats on both sides of the Capitol continue to argue among themselves over whether to abandon their earlier plan to simply send the president the nearly $150 billion Labor-HHS spending bill as a way to build off their successful public relations campaign following the president’s much-criticized veto of a children’s health insurance measure.

Some Democrats, who asked not to be named, said the three-pronged appropriations strategy could muddy the waters and detract from that message. Republicans already are arguing that soldiers shouldn’t have to carry pork-barrel domestic spending on their backs.

Meanwhile, a House Democratic aide said that there was “no chance” that funding for Iraq would be included in the package with Labor-HHS, noting that 89 House Members have signed a letter refusing to support any more funding for the war except for withdrawal of troops.

Whether Democrats combine two or three bills, House leaders hope to use the measure to pressure the 147 Republicans who have vowed to uphold any presidential veto. Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders see the plan as a way to solidify GOP support for the measures and to increase pressure on the president to sign the combo platter.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “is trying to cut a deal that gets people to move together on this bill,” said one knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide. “He thinks that lumping interests together gets more people to say, ‘Don’t veto this bill.’”

Appropriators plan to meet on Thursday to conference two or three bills and hope to have a package on the floors of both chambers next week. That would get the bills out the door before Veterans Day and potentially allow a veto override vote before the Thanksgiving recess.

Republicans said the Democrats’ apparent disarray likely would be to the GOP’s political advantage.

“Democrats’ secret spending strategy is a gift. Christmas came early,” said Ryan Loskarn, spokesman for Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.). “All this time we thought they were going to come up with some brilliant strategy.”

If Democrats go with the three-pronged strategy that includes the Defense bill, Loskarn said Republicans would only have to dust off their talking points from this spring when Democrats added spending to the Iraq War supplemental.

“We won’t have to re-create a game plan since it will be the same one we used during the supplemental fight — which we won,” Loskarn said. Republicans did tar Democrats as over-spenders, but Bush ultimately agreed to $17 billion in extra spending sought by Democrats in return for Democrats dropping demands for a troop-withdrawal timeline in Iraq.

House Republicans also said the Democrats appear to be playing into their hands, given that they have been complaining loudly for weeks that Democrats have delayed the veterans’ bill in order to use it as leverage for other spending.

“Republicans in the House hardly think it’s a good idea to lard up a crucial veterans spending measure with pork-barrel spending,” said a senior GOP leadership aide.

Still, Democrats are calculating that House Republicans could find themselves in a tough position politically, as they would have to vote against funding for the troops and veterans’ health care in addition to popular programs such as cancer research and Head Start.

Democrats, meanwhile, say they are working to solve an internal disagreement over the level of Senate earmarks in the spending bills. The senior House Democratic leadership aide said that deals are being reached between the two chambers, with the Senate agreeing with the House to cut the number of earmarks substantially from previous years. House Democrats have pushed to scale back earmarks in order to try to defuse Republican arguments that the Labor-HHS bill and other measures are filled with unnecessary targeted spending.

“That’s being worked out on a committee-[to]-committee basis and earmarks will be cut significantly and show that we’ve kept our promise,” the aide said.