White House

Federal budget battle is mostly sound and fury

WASHINGTON — There's not much to give thanks for this holiday season, say the people moving and shaking Washington.

Elderly and poor people could freeze. Sick children could go untreated. The Pentagon could run out of money. Doom. Gloom. And all because the opposite party is too wrongheaded, too pigheaded and too beholden to its special interests to compromise.

Congress has gone home for two weeks, and President Bush headed to Camp David Tuesday for Thanksgiving. They snarled at each other and fled the nation's capital without agreeing on the final shape of most of 2008's federal budget, even though the 2008 fiscal year began eight weeks ago.

The government will keep humming, though, thanks to legislation that keeps most agencies operating at last year's levels. In the meantime, the politicians make it sound as if hell — or at least the soldiers, children and the poor — is about to freeze over.

"It's important for the American people to know," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "that the (president's opposition to a labor/health and human services funding bill) means a million and a half poor families in America and seniors in our country will not be getting the low-income energy assistance that our bill calls for."

Oh yeah? says the White House.

You Democrats passed a war-funding bill with an Iraq withdrawal date that you know the president won't accept. You want to cut off money for our troops on the front lines.

"There is a misperception that this department can continue funding our troops in the field for an indefinite period of time through accounting maneuvers," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, "that we can shuffle money around the department. This is a serious misconception."

The facts are these: Of the 12 spending bills that Congress was supposed to pass and Bush was supposed to sign before Oct. 1, the start of the 2008 budget year, only one has become law. The president signed the Pentagon spending bill on Nov. 13, though it didn't include much of the war funding he wanted.

Bush, whose spending in his first six years was higher than that of any president since Lyndon Johnson, has threatened to veto nine of the remaining bills because he thinks they're too costly. The dispute over spending has triggered some of the nastiest partisan wrangling in years.

What's going on here, said Brian Riedl, the lead budget analyst at Washington's conservative Heritage Foundation, is raw 2008 politics.

"Both sides think it's important to show voters what their priorities are," he said. "If they give in now, they're afraid voters won't know what to believe."

The chief threat, despite the rhetoric, isn't a sudden cutoff of vital services — it's inefficiency.

"How can you efficiently plan when you don't know what your budget is going to be?" asked Rudolph G. Penner, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and a senior fellow at Washington's centrist Urban Institute.

Few federal budget-watchers ever expect a tidy, or even rational process, and Congress rarely finishes its budgeting on time.

This time, the two biggest budget battlegrounds are the war in Iraq and the labor/health and human services budget, largely because each is a cornerstone of the two parties' philosophies.

The Democratic-dominated Congress passed a $606.4 billion bill to fund labor, education and health and human services programs, the largest of the domestic spending measures. Bush vetoed it on Nov. 13.

The next day, the House of Representatives narrowly approved a $50 billion plan to pay for the war through early next year, a bill that mandated a redeployment of U.S. troops within 30 days of becoming law and set a goal of having all American forces out of Iraq by Dec. 15, 2008.

Offering a withdrawal timetable, said Pelosi, "really takes us in a new direction in Iraq, a new direction certainly from what President Bush has been advocating — a 10-year war without end, causing trillions of dollars with no end in sight and tens of thousands of troops to remain in Iraq."

Republicans, who offered a $70 billion measure with no withdrawal dates, considered their funding bill an important statement of support for the troops and for the president, and they tried to label opponents as unpatriotic.

"It is very disappointing that we can't get funding for the troops so that the secretary of defense doesn't have to say, 'I am going to have to start laying people off in the Pentagon in January if we don't have a funding bill,' " said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

The Pentagon, however, is unlikely to lay off anyone if the Republicans don't get their way.

Amy Belasco, a defense policy specialist for the Congressional Research Service, estimates that the Army could finance its war expenses until about mid-January, using funds that otherwise would be used later in the year.

By then, experts said, Congress and Bush are likely to agree on something. "In the end, nobody wants to hurt the grunts in the field," said Winslow Wheeler, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington research group.

On domestic spending, the two sides are playing a similar game of brinkmanship, as Bush and his allies contend that the labor/human services bill is larded with unnecessary projects.

"American taxpayers shouldn't be asked to subsidize billions in worthless pork and excessive spending at a time when family budgets are tight and health care and gas prices are skyrocketing," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The bill has 2,246 special projects, or earmarks. Democrats and some analysts countered that complaining about the projects obscures what could be lost if Bush's veto is sustained and he gets his way with reduced spending.

Democrats say that energy aid to low-income Americans would drop $630 million under Bush's plan, meaning that 1.4 million households would be at risk of losing help with their heating or cooling bills.

Currently, about 5.6 million households get grants; under the bill Bush vetoed, the average grant would have been $348, up from $314 last year.

But while all is frozen for the moment, the government and its services will go on.

"In the aggregate, you can't say it's going to destroy the gross domestic product," said Penner of the political gamesmanship. "I'd never argue that what's happening is a catastrophe. But this delay is a needless waste."