Pork-laden war funding bill nears Senate vote

A must-pass bill to pay for the war in Iraq and hurricane aid for the Gulf Coast is headed toward Senate approval and into the teeth of a veto threat that imperils many provisions added by lawmakers.

The $108.9 billion bill has grown to about $14 billion more than President Bush says he is willing to accept, and GOP leaders in both House and Senate vow to cut it in upcoming House-Senate talks.

That means items such as $4 billion in farm disaster aid and $1 billion in state grants not requested by Bush may be dropped.

Also at risk are Senate add-ons such as $1.1 billion in aid to the Gulf Coast seafood industry; $648 million for port security; and $1.9 billion to secure U.S. borders and waters. In trouble, too, may be efforts to boost the budget for New Orleans flood control projects up to Bush’s full $3.7 billion request.

The negotiations will test the determination and political strength _ and ingenuity _ of Gulf Coast Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. They will fight for home-state projects and priorities despite opposition from House and Senate GOP leaders and the White House.

The White House will try to fight off possible attempts by lawmakers to further cut into a $67.6 billion request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in their search for money for hurricane relief and border protection.

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. The White House said Bush 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.

The bill includes $430 million for veterans’ medical care that would become available only if Bush submitted an official request.

Bush’s veto threat emboldened conservatives such as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla. They undertook _ and mostly lost _ battles against home-state projects inserted by senior senators such as Cochran, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.

But Cochran may face an uphill battle in trying to preserve controversial earmarks such as $700 million to relocate a freight line along the Mississippi coast further inland despite its being already rebuilt with insurance proceeds.

With the exception of a single vote last week, to kill $15 million for seafood promotion obtained by Shelby, conservatives failed to pare back the spending bill.

And the bill got more expensive on Wednesday.

Ten Republicans joined most Democrats in passing a plan by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to provide $289 million to compensate health professionals, emergency responders and other early recipients of experimental flu vaccines in the event they are injured.

The overall bill contains $65.7 billion for war operations and $28.8 billion for hurricane relief, including grants to states to build and repair housing and $3.7 billion for levees and flood control projects.

During action last week in the full Senate, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., succeeded in diverting $1.9 billion in Pentagon funds to border security needs such as new aircraft and patrol boats.

On Tuesday, lawmakers added about $1.7 billion for levees and other flood control projects in the New Orleans areas.

But unlike Bush’s request last week, this money for flood control would not be offset by cutting the government’s chief disaster relief fund.

Kennedy also succeeded Wednesday, over the objections of the State Department, in directing that $105 million in economic aid go to private U.S. groups that help Iraqis build democratic institutions.

The Bush administration says it already has substantial dollars going to such organizations. Kennedy’s move probably will not survive the House-Senate negotiations.

Also Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., added $60 million for U.N. peacekeeping efforts in Sudan’s Darfur region. His plan was financed by a companion cut to money for the huge U.S. Embassy project in Baghdad.

© 2006 The Associated Press