It’s a given that President Bush will veto the big Iraq money bill that sets a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops. The question is whether he’ll veto the next version if it contains what he calls "excessive and extraneous" non-war spending.

Bush is talking tough, as are Democrats on Capitol Hill. But there are signs that both sides want to avoid a second veto.

While the president and Republicans have criticized both House and Senate Iraq bills for including such "pork" spending as $74 million to help peanut farmers store their crops and $25 million for California spinach producers, those types of easy-to-mock items make up a tiny fraction of the $20 billion or so added by Democrats.

GOP critics have been mostly silent or supportive of add-ons such as $4 billion-plus for medical care for veterans and troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, up to $6.7 billion for more hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast and $745 million to cover shortfalls in providing health care to children of the working poor.

Bush blames Democrats for adding "billions of dollars in domestic spending that is completely unrelated to the war. … These may be emergencies, they may be problems, but they can be addressed in the normal course of business. They don’t need to be added on to a bill that’s supporting our troops."

Democrats reply that Bush has routinely accepted non-war items on prior war funding bills, such as a $2 billion border fence to keep Mexicans and others from entering the country illegally.

And last year, powerful Gulf Coast Republicans such as Thad Cochran and Trent Lott of Mississippi successfully pressed for billions of dollars above Bush’s prior requests for Hurricane Katrina relief.

Bush’s veto threats regarding the Democrats’ add-ons have been purposefully vague. In official policy statements, the White House doesn’t specify which "excessive and extraneous" items would draw a veto, and it won’t set a "top line" figure that it’s willing to accept.

That’s a change from dealings with GOP leaders when Republicans controlled Capitol Hill.

For example, White House statements don’t even mention approximately $4 billion in farm disaster aid sought by lawmakers in both parties. Just last December, it vowed to veto a mostly identical plan.

"As we get closer to understanding how the House and Senate come out of this, we’ll be in a position to be more specific," White House Budget Director Rob Portman said in an interview with The Associated Press.

On Thursday, the White House took the Democrats to task for focusing on items other than the war. "What the Democrats did for the last four weeks — instead of discussing with the president a way to make sure that funding gets to the troops — they spent the last four weeks cobbling together votes, adding $24 billion in spending for spinach and some tropical birds or fish and shrimp, things like that," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who was with Bush in Texas.

Portman says that most of the non-war-related money is simply a way to use the must-pass bill to get around limits set on the amount of spending otherwise at the control of Congress’ powerful appropriations committees.

Items such as heating subsidies for the poor or additional money to combat wildfires "should be dealt with in the normal appropriations process," Portman said. "There’s no reason they have to be in the (Iraq) supplemental."

Republican conservatives in Congress are eager for a showdown over spending. More than 150 House Republicans have pledged to sustain a veto issued over the spending add-ons.

It’s plain Democrats are hoping to avoid a veto over non-war-related funding. They find themselves already on the defensive to Bush’s claim that delaying in providing more money for the war is going to harm troops overseas, even though defense budget experts question that assertion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struck back at that idea Thursday. He said Bush, not the Congress, would be to blame if a veto delayed money for troops because the president has rejected repeated invitations to discuss a compromise.

"I know how to compromise. He doesn’t. That what he’s got to learn," the Nevada Democrat said in Reno. "I think it’s been real hard for him to understand he can’t do what he did before we had a new Congress in town."

The White House criticism is likely to continue as House and Senate Democrats struggle to piece together a compromise bill after the House returns from a two-week recess on April 16.

House Democrats have considered splitting the non-war items from the Iraq funding and sending them to Bush separately as a way to blunt GOP attacks. The idea has met resistance from the Senate and seems to be fading, however.

As Republicans learned many times in their dealings with President Clinton — starting with the politically disastrous partial government shutdowns of 1995-96 — a president with a veto pen and the "bully pulpit" is a dangerous adversary.

The outcome in this key test of wills between Bush and the new Democratic-controlled Congress defies easy prediction.

"Usually you can figure these things out and you know what the end game play is going to be," said Tim Keating, top lobbyist for Honeywell International Inc. "I have no clue yet."

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

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