Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dems try to load up 'money train' war funding bill

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress are seeking to attach tens of billions of dollars in domestic spending to President Bush's latest $108 billion war funding request, setting up a political battle that could put U.S. troops and their families in the middle.
Plans to add money for such things as transportation, unemployment insurance, aid to states, food stamps, public housing and veterans' benefits has prompted veto threats from the White House.

Bush's budget director, Jim Nussle, said Tuesday that only a month remains before the Pentagon would threaten to furlough thousands of civilian employees. The Pentagon made a similar threat in December before Congress appropriated $70 billion for the wars.

"They're trying to figure out how to put everything onto this," Nussle said in an interview. In testimony prepared for the Senate Appropriations Committee today, he calls the war funding measure "the last big money train out of town before the election." That could be the case if Congress doesn't pass any of its regular appropriations bills on time.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have not decided which items to seek as part of the war funding request and are hoping to reach agreement with the White House on some of it. Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the items being reviewed would be "quick ways to stimulate the economy."

Spurring the Democrats' effort is a struggling economy. Pelosi, who negotiated with the Bush administration to win quick passage of a two-year, $168 billion economic stimulus package, called on the president last week to support a second measure "to get our economy back on track, create jobs and speed assistance to families struggling to make ends meet."

The first package included more than $100 billion in rebates to taxpayers, which will only begin to be mailed or deposited directly into bank accounts next month. A family of four with an annual household income under $150,000 will get up to $1,800. Even low-income Americans who paid no taxes last year are in line for smaller rebates.

Bush has said he wants to wait for those rebates to reach households — and perhaps get spent — before deciding on a second stimulus package. But pent-up demand in Congress has pushed items left out of the first package to the forefront. The House Ways and Means Committee is set to approve an extension of unemployment benefits today. A similar measure that fell out of the first package would have cost nearly $15 billion over two years.

Nussle said adding that type of spending to the war funding bill would jeopardize projections for a balanced budget in 2012. Halfway through the 2008 fiscal year, the deficit already has reached $310 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The White House has projected the deficit for the full year would be $410 billion.

"This is a matter of just continued deficit spending without an eye toward how it's going to be paid for," Nussle said.

The war funding bill is slated to reach the House later this month or in early May. Possible additions:

•Providing 13 more weeks of jobless benefits to workers who reach the 26-week maximum, which is backed by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

•Spending on highway, rail and airport projects that are ready to go but fall short of state funds. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn.,lists 3,000 such projects.

•Expanding college tuition benefits for military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, proposed by Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb.

Some Democrats and advocates want to pay for at least part of it. "There's many a good thing that you could do, and you should pay for it," said Chad Stone, chief economist for the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has been involved in the negotiations.

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