White House, Republicans Flex Their Muscles in Budget Battle

Times Staff Writers

Heartened by a string of Republican victories in a Senate spending debate, the Bush administration warned lawmakers Friday not to add funding to a bill that already totals $390 billion.

White House officials also said they would recommend that President Bush veto the bill unless changes were made to ensure current prohibitions on the use of federal funds for abortions remain in effect.

Senate passage of the spending bill is expected next week. The measure would fund non-defense government programs, from agriculture to veterans affairs, through September. Two military spending laws for fiscal year 2003, which began Oct. 1, were enacted last year.

Republican House and Senate leaders will draft a final version of the bill that is expected to satisfy Bush's concerns on funding and abortion. Congressional aides said language would be inserted to preserve the restrictions on federal funding for abortions. These include a prohibition on use of federal health benefits to finance the procedures.

In a third day of clashes, Senate Republicans continued to deflect Democratic attempts to increase the bill's spending. In a key test, Republicans defeated an amendment by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to add about $11 billion to a broad range of programs.

The vote was 52 to 46, with Democratic Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska joining with Republicans in the majority.

"I am carrying the president's torch," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told the Senate in arguing against the proposed spending increases. "Remember the deficits."

Byrd shot back: "I say remember the [$1.35-trillion] tax cut." He was referring to a 10-year tax reduction Bush won in 2001.

Democrats point to the tax cut as a major reason for the renewal of federal budget deficits, expected to reach $200 billion to $300 billion in the next fiscal year. Bush and other Republicans blame a weak economy and the government's anti-terrorism campaign.

Mindful of the projected deficits, the White House said in a statement: "Spending restraint is critical to encouraging continued economic growth, and the Senate has made great progress in moving toward enactment of bills that meet the needs of the country."

The statement said the Bush administration "strongly opposes amendments to add new, extraneous spending."

At $390 billion, the bill represents an increase of more than 6% in federal discretionary spending on domestic programs and foreign aid over comparable legislation enacted in the fall of 2001. The bill revives and combines 11 spending measures that had died at the end the last Congress. Senate versions of last year's measures, written when the chamber was under Democratic control, were cut by $9.8 billion to meet Bush's spending target.

Pressure is growing for lawmakers to pass the new spending package before Jan. 31, when the latest of six stopgap funding resolutions that have kept the government operating four months into the fiscal year will expire.

But Democrats were putting up stiff resistance. They said the bill scrimps on a range of priority programs. As drafted, the bill would cut non-defense programs across the board by 2.9% to free up money for education, modernization of voting procedures, farm aid and other expenses. It was this across-the-board cut that Byrd proposed Friday to remove.

Under the cut, Democrats said, 79,000 low-income families could lose federal housing vouchers, 236,000 veterans could be left waiting for medical care and key enforcement agencies, such as the U.S. Customs Service and FBI, could lose hundreds of agents. Democratic analysts depicted similar ripple effects throughout the government.

Predicting the public will rebel, especially as Bush pushes an economic stimulus bill that includes $670 billion in tax cuts, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) said his party will continue to use the spending debate "to make sure people know there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans."

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