WASHINGTON — At the same time the Bush administration has been pushing for deep cuts in a popular crime-fighting program for states and cities, the White House has been fighting for approval of $603 million for the Iraqi police.
The White House earlier this year proposed slashing the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program, which helps local law enforcement officials deal with violent crime and serious offenders, to $200 million in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
In 2002, the year before the Iraq war, the program received $900 million.
The administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress are headed for a showdown over the domestic money, probably next month. When the Senate last week passed the emergency Iraq war funding bill, it allotted an immediate $490 million for the domestic grants while keeping the Iraqi police funds intact.
The House is expected to consider the package when it returns from its Memorial Day recess next week. But the domestic grants are the kind of spending that's causing Bush to threaten a veto.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino did not single out the Byrne grants but made it clear the president is not happy with items that don't deal with the war on terror.
She talked about how Congress wants "to ladle on lots of special projects. The president thinks that some of those projects may be meritorious. But they should have that debate outside of funding for the troops."
Some budget experts argue that the Iraq police and domestic grants have nothing to do with one another.
"State and local policing should be left to state and local governments. I don't see any advantage to federal meddling," said Chris Edwards, an analyst at Washington's Cato Institute.
Cato opposed the Iraq war, but Edwards said the issue of Iraq's police funding "is a foreign policy question, and foreign policy should depend on things other than economics."
But Travis Sharp, military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, disagreed.
"There are tradeoffs in the federal government, and one of the arguments a lot of people make is that money spent in Iraq is not spent here," he said.
Those angry with the administration have a powerful ally in Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department.
"While President Bush requests millions of dollars for the war in Iraq, his domestic spending continues to shortchange our safety at home," she said.
When Budget Director Jim Nussle testified before her subcommittee last month, neither side showed any desire to compromise.
Mikulski called Bush's policies "outrageous" and labeled Nussle's testimony "snarky, scolding, dismissive."
"We have funded the surge of Baghdad, but we have not funded the surge of violent crime in Baltimore, Biloxi or other places," the senator said. She then asked Nussle if Bush would support restoring most of the Byrne grant.
"I can only repeat what the president has said," Nussle replied.
"The president didn't say anything about this," Mikulski shot back. "You think if I went to see the president, he'd say, 'No?"'
"Senator," Nussle said calmly, "I can only repeat what the president said. And his two priorities he stated were that the bill stay within the $108.1 billion request and that it support the troops."
The Iraq police funds are listed as money due to Iraq's Ministry of Interior. Also included in "new obligations" to the "Iraq Security Forces Fund" are $603 million for the Interior Ministry, $744 million for the Ministry of Defense and $153 million for "quick response."
The Congressional Research Service estimates that since the war began, the United States has spent about $20.75 billion to train and equip Iraqi soldiers and police officers.
Because of congressional skepticism about just how well those forces were being trained, Congress last fall required the Pentagon to provide an independent assessment of the forces' capability within a year to 18 months.
White House Office of Management and Budget spokesman Jane Lee stressed Tuesday that the administration hardly wants to make America less safe and believes it "should be a reliable partner with state and local law enforcement and that taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely to help meet that goal."
And, she noted, the president's fiscal 2009 budget proposes spending a total of $1 billion for a variety of programs to help states and cities.
But that doesn't mean all the programs should survive intact. "A targeted number of programs that were earmarked, duplicative or had not demonstrated results were consolidated into flexible grants," she said, "that will permit states and localities to compete for funding based on local needs, as well as national priorities."
Skeptics were not buying it.
"Without the restoration of this funding, our efforts to limit drugs in Montana and throughout the country will be devastated," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "Our children's exposure to drugs and crime will be increased, and our families will be torn apart."