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Bush eager for budget showdown          Send a link to a friend

[September 25, 2007]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush is spoiling for a veto battle with Democrats over spending bills, but Congress has done such a poor job completing its budget work that the showdown could be weeks away.

The Oct. 1 deadline for completing the 12 annual spending bills funding next year's budgets for 15 Cabinet departments is just a week away, but the Democratic-controlled Congress has yet to send him a single bill. The last time Congress failed to clear a single spending bill by the Oct. 1 deadline occurred in 2002.

With the deadline looming, congressional Democrats are preparing to pass a stopgap bill to keep the government running into mid-November. The measure will also contain $5 billion to purchase armored vehicles to protect troops in Iraq from mines and roadside bombs.

A clash has been brewing since the spring over Democrats' attempts to add more than $22 billion to Bush's $933 billion request for the approximately one-third of the federal budget funded by the yearly spending bills.

The additional funding has long been sought by Democrats and includes budget increases for dozens of favored domestic programs, including grants to local governments, education, homeland security, law enforcement and health research.

Some Capitol Hill Republicans favor the increases as well, though Bush's allies in the House have promised to sustain vetoes that hang over nine of the 12 measures.

Bush has signaled a hard line, one that's welcomed by the GOP faithful, many of whom believe the party needs to show greater determination on spending. Bush took lots of criticism for not vetoing spending bills when Republicans held Congress.

"Republicans squandered the brand as the party of limited government and fiscal discipline and that contributed significantly to their losses in 2006," said former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who heads the anti-spending group Club for Growth. "A showdown like this is exactly what the Republicans need to recapture the brand."

"The President is rightly defensive about his fiscal record, and clearly he is itching to veto appropriations bills ... in a vain attempt to re-establish his bona fides with conservative groups," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

While Bush has signaled flexibility on politically popular budget increases for veterans programs and to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, he's drawn a line in the sand on just about everything else.

Bush has also vowed to veto a $35 billion expansion of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program and a measure authorizing water projects that's poised to clear the Senate later Monday.

Even though Bush has poor public approval ratings, his veto pen and the power to drive the public agenda give him great leverage over lawmakers -- whose approval ratings are even lower. And he can hold Congress in session demanding concessions.

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Complicating matters is the dawdling pace of the Senate, which has passed only four of the 12 appropriations bills. After completing the defense measure next week, the Senate will take a week off, a move that hasn't sat well with the House, which passed all 12 bills this summer.

Democrats lambasted Republicans last year for not getting the budget work done. Now, the tables have turned.

Bush vows he won't be muscled into signing a foot-tall "omnibus" bundle of bills.

"If they think that by waiting until just before they leave for the year to send me a bill that is way over budget and thicker than a phone book, if they think that's going to force me to sign it, it's not," Bush said Monday.

Democrats know they need to make concessions and are interested in negotiations.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said $16 billion of the $22 billion difference between Bush and Democrats is to restore cuts sought by Bush to programs supported by lawmakers in both parties.

"After having asked us to borrow another $150 billion for the war in Iraq, he's trying to claim somehow that he's 'Mr. Fiscal Rectitude' by squawking about our efforts to restore $16 billion of his cuts," Obey said.

But Democrats have leverage of their own, including the need to pass a huge bill funding the war in Iraq for the upcoming year. Bush has already requested $147 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and is expected to send Congress another $45 billion request this week.

Democrats haven't made any decisions on whether to try to attach domestic increases to the Iraq funding bill. Another option is to try to hitch some of the spending increases to a bill Bush might have little choice but to sign, such as a measure funding medical care for veterans and improvements to military bases.

"Only in Washington can $22 billion be called a very small difference," Bush said recently.

[Associated Press; by Andrew Taylor]

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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