WASHINGTON -- With budgets for most federal agencies still in limbo, congressional Republicans are drafting a spending bill for the 3-month-old fiscal year that would slash billions of dollars for domestic programs the Senate approved when it was under Democratic control last year.
The bill will hew to the tight constraint of $385 billion that President Bush set for domestic spending after the Republicans gained full control of Congress in the midterm elections. As a result, lawmakers from both parties face battles over how to divvy up scarce dollars among their favorite programs.
Among the potential trade-offs: Should the National Institutes of Health get a big boost at the expense of education programs? Should the U.S. Customs Service sacrifice to make room for reforms in election procedures? And should the government scale back parks and public land programs to bolster homeland security?
These and other showdowns neared as the Senate on Thursday cleared for Bush's signature another stopgap funding bill to keep much of the government running through Jan. 31 at levels from the previous fiscal year. It was the sixth such continuing resolution since the fiscal year began Oct. 1.
Of the 13 annual bills that finance the government's discretionary spending, only two, for defense, became law during last year's congressional session. The other 11 died, forcing much of the government to operate on autopilot for at least one-third of fiscal 2003. Democrats protested the ongoing spending freeze.
"Basically, what this reflects is a dramatic cut, a deep, deep cut in the funding for education, a deep cut for homeland security, a deep cut for transportation and research, cuts virtually across the board," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "We will voice, as strongly as we can, our opposition to these cuts."
But Daschle allowed the stopgap spending bill to clear the Senate without a recorded vote -- saving his fire for larger battles.
Republican leaders plan to cut the Senate Democratic spending blueprint by about $9 billion, according to House Republican aides. For instance, programs proposed for the departments of Commerce, Justice and State would be cut by a total of $2.4 billion, to hit a new target of $41.3 billion. Those planned for Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services would be trimmed by $2.7 billion, to meet a goal of $131.4 billion. Other notable cuts could come in Transportation, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he would work with Democrats "in every way possible so that we can move these bills as quickly as possible."
Stevens, noted for winning federal projects for his state, said he wanted to get federal spending moving to help create jobs in Alaska.
Whether Stevens and his House counterparts will be able to exceed the spending level set by the president is unclear. Bush has not directly threatened a veto if that were to happen.
But Amy Call, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said Bush has "made clear" his wishes.
"We need to control the rate of growth in government spending," Call said. The $385-billion limit for domestic programs "is what he feels is acceptable." The total spent on these programs in the 2002 fiscal year was $360 billion.
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who oversees labor, health and education spending, said he could live with the Bush limit. "It's not as if we're on Poverty Row," Regula said. "But revenues are down, and I don't want to mortgage our future."
But he acknowledged that Democrats would attack any cuts in health or education.
While the choices will be difficult, lawmakers are already looking to future spending battles. Many foresee such clashes if the administration seeks more money for its antiterrorism campaign or a conflict in Iraq.
For those reasons, one analyst suggested, the spending debate over fiscal 2003 may be quickly settled after a burst of partisan rhetoric.
"There's a bit of a nod and a wink going on here," said Robert D. Reischauer, president of the nonpartisan Urban Institute and a former congressional budget director. "Of course, significant cutbacks serve both parties' interests. Republicans will say, 'Now that we're under Republican control, see, fiscal discipline can be brought about.' And Democrats can say, 'See, when the Congress is under Republican control, they savage programs that help people.' Both parties are singing tunes that their audiences like to hear."