WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday passed a $109 billion bill to pay for war in Iraq and hurricane relief at home, knowing it would ignite a battle with the White House and House conservatives determined to shear it of $14 billion in election-year add-ons.
A veto threat imperils many of those provisions, which were added by lawmakers seeking additional funding for Gulf Coast relief and farmers as well as for border and port security.
The measure has grown much larger than President Bush says he is willing to accept, and difficult House-Senate talks loom over how to cut it back to his
House leaders promise to take a hard line in talks with the Senate.
“The House will not take up an emergency supplemental spending bill for Katrina and the war in Iraq that spends one dollar more than what the president asks for,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Period.”
The new funds would bring total spending on war-related costs since the September 2001 attacks to roughly $430 billion, according to calculations by the Congressional Research Service.
Appropriations for last year’s hurricanes now would total about $96 billion.
The Senate measure passed by a 77-21 vote. It contains $65.7 billion for war operations and $28.9 billion for hurricane relief, including grants to states to build and repair housing, and $4 billion for levees and flood control projects in Louisiana.
New England senators applauded a provision in the spending bill that would provide $20 million to assist New England fishermen who were affected by last year’s red tide outbreak that caused more than $10 million in damage in the region.
The red tide, caused by toxic algae, led to the closure of shellfish beds along New England’s coast for much of May through September 2005.
“As anyone who was in Maine last summer can tell you, the impact on our state’s economy was disastrous,” said U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe in a joint statement with fellow Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Massachusetts Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. “This funding will bring relief to devastated businesses and families that suffered from lost income.”
The spending bill attracted far more no votes than is typical for a measure benefiting U.S. troops overseas. But many Republicans – including Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. – said the measure’s cost was simply too high and that too many items unrelated to the war or hurricane relief had been tacked on.
Bush’s veto threat puts at risk a host of items not requested by the president, such as $4 billion in farm disaster aid, $1 billion in state grants and $1.1 billion in aid to the Gulf Coast seafood industry.
“Unfortunately, there are some here in Washington trying to load that bill up with unnecessary spending,” Bush said. “This bill is for emergency spending, and it should be limited to emergency measures.”
The tough talk came as the House overwhelmingly passed a bill aimed at boosting security at U.S. ports; one of the Senate’s add-ons would boost port security funding by $648 million. Another would provide $1.9 billion to secure U.S. borders and waters.
The coming House-Senate talks are certain to reduce the tally for hurricane aid, but lawmakers may give the Pentagon funding greater scrutiny as well. Negotiators are likely to be tempted to use $10 billion-plus for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund as a kind of piggy bank to fund projects not requested by Bush.
The Senate bill reflects the freewheeling nature of the body, where it takes just a few Republicans to cross party lines to join with Democrats for more spending. That happened again and again, both in the Appropriations Committee and on the floor.
Except for a single vote last week, to kill $15 million for seafood promotion obtained by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., conservatives failed to pare back the spending bill.
During almost two weeks before the full Senate, the bill grew by more than $2 billion despite a toughly worded veto threat made on the first day of debate. Bush said he would veto any bill exceeding his $92.2 billion request for the war and hurricane relief plus an additional $2.3 billion to prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic.
“We know we’re going to have to make compromises,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who may face an uphill battle in trying to preserve controversial earmarks such as $700 million to relocate a freight line along the Mississippi coast farther inland despite its being already rebuilt with insurance proceeds.
One little-noticed provision added by Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on the floor would block the government from entering into no-bid contracts in excess of $500,000. The provision came on the heels of numerous reports of bloated Katrina-related contracts.
“We in Congress just keep trusting FEMA to enter into competitive contracts even though there’s no evidence that it has any intention of doing so,” Obama said.
Separately, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., announced he will shift $6 billion from Bush’s defense and foreign aid budgets to domestic agency budgets.
The Appropriations Military Quality of Life Subcommittee on Thursday approved a $136 billion measure funding military and veterans medical benefits, but even Republicans said the measure significantly underfunded the Pentagon’s rapidly rising health care budget.