Showdown nears on homeland defense spending plan
By CNN White House Correspondent Major Garrett and Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Even as the White House reiterated President Bush's veto threat, defiant Senate Democrats on Wednesday were readying for a showdown with Bush over their $7.5 billion homeland security proposal.
At issue is whether additional funding for things like border patrol and nuclear security are necessary now, as Democrats believe, or whether Congress should spend no more money this year beyond what was already agreed upon, as Republicans see it.
At a breakfast with congressional leaders, Bush again warned Democrats against adding new spending to the budget agreement reached in early October that calls for $686 billion in overall discretionary spending. The president promised to veto any bill that exceeds that amount.
Despite Bush's veto promise, Democrats, led by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, have added $15 billion to a Defense spending bill to fund bioterrorism prevention, state and local law enforcement, border security and nuclear security.
Thirty-nine Senate Republicans sent a letter to Bush that says in part, "we will vote to sustain any veto of a bill which violates the commitment Congress gave you."
But Republicans will need 51 votes Thursday, when the issue is expected to come before the Senate, in order to defeat Byrd in procedural motions to stop the homeland security spending from passing.
Senate GOP leadership aides say they believe they will have the votes to filibuster, but perhaps not enough to strike the extra money from the bill. They privately complain they need more help from the White House to hold wavering Republicans.
The White House is confident it will prevail. "The president believes this is an impractical exercise on the part of Senate Democrats," a senior official said. "We will sustain a veto."
Despite the president's veto threat at the morning breakfast, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, made the case to reporters just moments later that more federal funding to defend America at home is essential.
"Terrorists are operating all year long, and we need a budget that reflects our ability to deal with this terrorist threat all year long -- not some time next year but now," Daschle said. "The threat is real, the alerts are being provided almost on a weekly basis. If there are causes for alerts, if there is sufficient concern for our safety, then there ought to be a commensurate commitment to that safety through additional investment in homeland security."
Democrats point out that the agreement on spending was signed before anthrax became a real threat, and the situation has become more dire.
"They say wait. They're tempting fate. Don't tempt fate," Byrd told reporters. "We're trying to help the president fulfill his responsibility under the Constitution."
But Republicans argue that agencies do not yet know how much money is necessary to fight terrorism, and they promise to offer a spending package in the spring when the needs are more clear.
"This is simply a bidding game. It is a political bidding game to get support that they care more about this issue than the president," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania.
Bush has said some new spending may be required, but should be allocated in the following year's budget. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president made his position on the matter "plain as day."
"The president feels very strongly that at a time when the nation is in the midst of a war that war should not be fought on last year's budget," Fleischer said. "The Pentagon needs additional resources to fight the war. That advance funding should not be complicated or clouded as a result of items that do not pertain to the war on terrorism internationally. The president made it plain as day -- 'If you attach anything else to it, attach it, send it to me, I'll veto it and send it right back to you and you can go to work.'"
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, said Democrats are playing "gotcha politics" with this, laying the groundwork to blame Republicans if another terrorist event occurs and America's law enforcement and health agencies are not prepared.
"They say, 'Give us more money, and by the way, if you don't, if something happens, we'll say it's all your fault.' But, I mean, what about waiting to get information from experts about what is needed, how much is needed? How about doing this in a logical way?" Lott asked Tuesday.
Byrd denied that politics is a consideration.
"There are a few things in this life that are more important than politics," he said. "I don't have one iota of interest in the political side."
The Defense Appropriations bill, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, includes $7.5 billion for homeland defense and another $7.5 billion in aid, mostly for New York. That money is designated as "emergency spending" over the $318 billion in defense spending also in the bill.
There are also designations in the bill for how to spend $20 billion in emergency funds signed into law in September immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
If Republicans are successful in filibustering the defense bill because of the homeland security funding, it could derail the entire bill funding the military -- a politically tricky strategy as American troops fight in Afghanistan.
"There is no compromise," a pessimistic Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the lead Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told reporters.
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