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GOP Pushes for Approps Deal

As the showdown between Democrats and the president over spending limits intensifies, Congressional Republicans are quietly urging the White House to incorporate some wiggle room in its hard-line stance over how much Congress should spend on domestic priorities.

Though they fault Democrats for being intransigent on the more than $21 billion they want to spend over President Bush’s recommended budget, House and Senate Republicans said they are looking for the White House to become more engaged in negotiating an actual compromise on appropriations this year.

“The president’s numbers are harsh — no question about it — but they’re a reasonable starting point,” said Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a conservative who also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“One hopes that people can sit down and talk around here and do it the old-fashioned way, which is to work things out in a reasonable way that still has fiscal discipline,” Gregg said.

Similarly, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), a former House Appropriations chairman, said both Democrats and Bush need to be open to negotiations.

“I believe that both sides need to be more cooperative,” Young said.

So far, Democratic leaders repeatedly have asked President Bush to meet with them to discuss a compromise on a top-line discretionary spending cap somewhere between their $954 billion proposal and his $933 billion request. But Democrats say the White House has rebuffed them time and again.

“The ball is in the president’s court right now. He has told us ‘veto, veto, veto’ for months now,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), an Appropriations cardinal, said last week. “The question now is, where are negotiations? Are you willing to come to the table and talk or are you just going to say, ‘My way or the highway?’ … To this point, we have not been able to get that conversation.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to Bush last week asking him again to begin discussions on spending issues, but the invite appears to have been declined.

“Rather than sending legislation to the president to fund our nation’s veterans before Veterans Day, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid today instead sent a letter to explain their failure to meet this goal,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a Nov. 10 statement. “We encourage Congress to work quickly to send the remaining appropriations bills one at a time — as they promised the American people — and within the reasonable spending limits recommended by the president.”

However, Republicans on Capitol Hill clearly are willing to spend more than the president, despite voting to sustain his vetoes and for unsuccessful procedural motions to accede to the president’s budget numbers.

“Is there some headroom from where he is? Yeah, probably,” said Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I would argue that [the final number is] going to be a lot closer to where the president is than where the Democrats are.”

Thune said the president already has indicated a willingness to sign the military construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill, which exceeded his budget by almost $4 billion.

But Thune said the recently vetoed Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill, which was nearly $10 billion bigger than the president asked for, only gives Republicans and the White House more leverage because Democrats look like they have overreached.

“If they were going a billion over or a billion and a half over, it’s probably not as big an issue. But I think [the $10 billion] gives the president great ammunition to say, ‘Look, this is way over budget,’” Thune said.

It is on issues such as veterans, health and education programs that Republicans appear more likely to support spending than the president.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said his votes for the president’s spending caps should not be seen as a wholesale endorsement of the White House position.

“I think we should be spending more, not less, on education, on health, on research, on fighting diseases,” he said. “So I voted with the president against the HHS bill, but I’d like him to see that as a signal that I’d like for negotiation to begin.”

Similarly, House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) indicated that the upcoming House veto override vote on the Labor-HHS bill will be more about getting both sides to the bargaining table than it will be about adopting the president’s stance on the budget.

Lewis said he couldn’t predict whether President Bush would be willing to go above his spending number, but he noted that Bush has done so before.

“On the last supplemental, there was $17 billion more than the president supported, so there’s usually some room for negotiation,” Lewis said.

Still, Office of Management and Budget spokesman Sean Kevelighan indicated that the $17 billion may be all the extra spending Congress gets.

“The Democrats already prefunded their budget by adding $17 billion in unrequested, unrelated spending to the previous war supplemental,” he said.

Centrist Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said Democrats have given the president a stronger hand by leading Congress down a road to a near-certain omnibus spending package that would fold most of the appropriations bills into an unwieldy super-bill.

Though Kirk said he planned to vote to override the president’s veto of the Labor-HHS bill, he noted, “In the end, when you’re talking about an omnibus, you’re talking about something that can’t pass with a veto-proof majority.”

Kirk said he doesn’t see much willingness from Bush to budge on his budget numbers.

“When he’s drawn clear lines in the past, he doesn’t break them,” he said.

Of course, the president won’t necessarily be wanting for champions on the Hill. House GOP leaders are already talking about trying to force Democrats into passing a long-term continuing resolution that merely keeps the government funded at last year’s levels and eliminates most earmarks, said one House Republican aide familiar with the leadership’s thinking.

Plus, Senate Republicans have forced procedural votes in recent weeks in order to show they could sustain vetoes of spending bills, and more than 140 House Republicans have signed onto a letter vowing to uphold any appropriations veto.

“It’s a curious position they’ve taken,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “They helped us write the bills. They put earmarks in the bills, they vote for the bills and then they have these symbolic procedural votes to say, ‘But if it gets right down to it, we’ll vote against these bills.’ So I’m not sure where they are.”

Because some Republicans are voting with the president now but appear willing to buck him later, it is unclear how many might vote to override a presidential veto if Democrats were to pare back their requests and the president continues to refuse to negotiate.

Either way, Murray warned of the political ramifications Republicans could face next year if they continue to side with the president on appropriations.

“If the president at the end of the day says, ‘I’m not going to allow one dime over what I said, I’ll veto everything,’ and the Republicans in this Congress are going to stand up and protect him on that, they are going to suffer the consequences of seeing their own communities really hurt by these budget cuts,” she said.

She said the burning question remains: “When are Republicans in the House and Senate going to stand up and say, ‘We don’t want the president’s number. We want to negotiate, and we have enough votes to override’?”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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