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Bush faces GOP foes on budget

Times Staff Writer

Congressional Democrats have found an unexpected ally in their budget showdown with President Bush: Republicans.

The president is pushing to cut and even eliminate some popular domestic programs that pump billions of dollars into the states. Many congressional Republicans, wary of the potential fallout from the loss of funds, have joined Democrats to oppose the cuts.

California alone has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

More than a week into the new fiscal year, Congress has yet to send Bush any of its 12 spending bills. And Bush has threatened to veto most of those that have been approved by the House or the Senate, accusing lawmakers of overspending in a time of budget deficits. But Democrats have stood their ground, not only rejecting many of the proposed cuts, but adding more funds for programs they believe have been neglected.

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“We didn’t overspend; the president under-funded,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said during debate last week on a spending bill that Bush has threatened to veto.

And they’re getting help from some Republicans who, unlike the president, must run for reelection in communities that rely on Washington’s money for community development, housing, anti-crime programs and other activities. For example, Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) helped engineer a successful bipartisan effort in the House to boost to $460 million the federal funding to reimburse states for jailing illegal immigrants. Bush has proposed no money for the program.

Bush wants to cut federal aid programs by about $3.8 billion, according to Federal Funds Information for States, a Washington-based organization. The House has called for an increase of $13.8 billion, and the Senate is headed toward a $10-billion increase.

Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman for the White House budget office, said the administration had pushed to reduce overall funding to provide more money to serve the communities in greatest need.

Democrats will need GOP support if they are to override Bush’s promised vetoes. Democrats hold narrow majorities in the House and Senate; it takes two-thirds of each chamber to override a veto.

So Democrats were delighted last week when Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) took to the Senate floor complaining about the president’s proposed $1.6-billion cut in aid to state and local law enforcement at a time when violent crime is on the rise. The Senate next week is expected to approve a bill that would spend $550 million on the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which provides grants for state and local law enforcement agencies. Bush proposed cutting the program to $32 million, from about $500 million. The House has approved $725 million.

Shelby isn’t alone.

During a hearing earlier this year, Rep. Joe Knollenberg of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee that writes the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget, called proposed cuts to the Community Development Block Grant “unacceptable to any mayor, city council or governor, and unlikely to be agreed to, at least by my conference.”

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The White House has pushed for a 20% cut for the block grant program. The House approved more than $3.9 billion, an increase of more than $200 million. The Senate rejected Bush’s proposed cut, but held funding at last year’s $3.7 billion. California receives at least 13% of the funds. Los Angeles County and cities received about $164 million last year.

More than a dozen GOP senators, including some usual Bush allies, have pushed for increased funding for the program, which pays for improvements in impoverished neighborhoods and services to the poor. Bush had proposed some of the same cuts in previous budget proposals, but they were rejected by the Republican-controlled Congress.

That’s not to say that Republicans are ready to vote to override a veto.

GOP leaders believe the growth in federal spending and the string of budget deficits under their rule contributed to the election losses last year that handed control of Congress to the Democrats. And they remain under pressure from their conservative base to rein in spending.

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“If the issue is simply an extra $3 [billion] to $4 billion in spending in every bill, then Republicans are going to vote to sustain a veto,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a former St. Paul mayor who has pushed for increased funding for the Community Development Block Grant program. “But if the issue is programs that, in a bipartisan way, are seen as effective allocation of government resources because they generate growth and security, then we’re going to be less prone to sustain.”

The White House also criticized as excessive a House- proposed increase for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The program helps poor households pay air-conditioning and heating bills, and avoid utility cutoffs for nonpayment. It has strong support among lawmakers from cold states in both parties.

Bush has proposed cutting the program to about $1.8 billion. The House provided $2.7 billion; the Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended about $2.2 billion, the same as last fiscal year.

Under the president’s proposal, the minimum amount that California would receive under the program would decline to $68 million, from about $90 million, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Assn.

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Bush has also proposed eliminating all federal reimbursement to counties and states for jailing illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.

The House seeks to provide $460 million, up from about $400 million last year.

The administration contends the money would be better spent securing the border.

But in California -- which receives about 40% of the money -- Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has lobbied for the program, calling it necessary to “at least partially offset the costs California taxpayers are bearing as a direct result of the federal government’s continued failure to secure the border.”

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Congress also has rejected Bush’s proposed cuts to an Environmental Protection Agency program that helps state and local agencies pay for clean- water projects, such as preventing runoff of polluted water onto beaches.

The president and Congress have agreed on a stopgap spending measure to keep the government operating through Nov. 16 and give them more time to reach a compromise.

But differences over how much federal aid should be provided to cities and states is only one part of the $22-billion chasm that divides congressional Democratic leaders and the White House.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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