Wishes lose out to realities

There are few things more important to members of Congress than control over how the government spends money. Getting re-elected is one of those things. That may explain why lawmakers seem to be doing the bare minimum this year on the budget.

It’s long been apparent that 2006 would be a sleepy year on the budget front. Major agenda items like fixing Medicare and Social Security are off the table as too big to tackle in an election year. The extension of cuts to income tax rates passed in 2001 and due to expire in 2010 is a no-go as well.

But that election-year caution _ at least in the Senate _ has been extended to basic tasks such as passing annual agency budgets. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has put virtually all the spending bills on a back burner.

Passing those bills to keep the government running is Congress’ core job, but it’s becoming clearer it won’t get done until a post-election lame-duck session, if then. It could spill over into next year, when Democrats could take control of one or both chambers of Congress from Republicans.

Frist doesn’t want to clog up the Senate with lengthy debates on spending bills that seem mundane compared with hot-button topics such as gay marriage, flag-burning and immigration. That’s especially true since appropriations debates _ especially in even-numbered election years _ can generate politically nettlesome votes dictated by Democrats.

“We’re getting to the point where odd-numbered years are years in which we can get stuff done,” said Frist’s top budget aide, Bill Hoagland. “Even-numbered years have become so partisan and politicized around here that it makes it more difficult.”

So Senate Republicans are focusing on two spending bills where failure to act by Election Day would have political ramifications: defense and homeland security.

Frist is determined to pass both before the August recess, a necessary step toward getting them negotiated with the House and sent to President Bush before Congress adjourns in October for the fall campaign. Most of the government will be put on autopilot Oct. 1 with instructions to spend no more and no less than what Congress appropriated the previous year.

The first order of Senate business in the coming week is homeland security spending. Democrats are poised with amendments to boost funding for port and border security.

Bills that clamp down on federal aid to education, health research and grants to local governments and police departments will wait until after Election Day. Some of them may not even get a debate before they’re jumbled together behind closed doors into a catchall bill that GOP leaders have promised to try to avoid.

Such omnibus bills invariably contain controversial last-minute add-ons, such as a $50 million indoor rain-forest project in Iowa funded two years ago. It earned considerable criticism from conservative activists railing against Congress’ appetite for “pork barrel” projects.

The GOP-dominated House has passed 10 appropriations bills this year, covering all of government except education, health, welfare and jobs programs. The bill for them is stuck while GOP leaders figure out how to deal with a minimum-wage increase that Democrats succeeded at including.

The delay in advancing the annual spending bills forestalls a showdown with Bush. Like last year, the president is clamping down on the domestic ledger, but he’s having more trouble doing it in an election year.

Moderate Republicans are pressing for several billion dollars above Bush’s request for domestic programs.

House GOP leaders have responded by shifting $6 billion from the defense and foreign aid budgets to domestic ledgers. In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., has nearly doubled the shift from defense and foreign aid to almost $12 billion.

In response, Bush has threatened to veto a defense budget if Congress cuts it too much to finance domestic programs. Critics say it’s all a ruse in the first place, since war funding bills are often used to restore the defense cuts later.

“It’s a massive loophole to evade the budget,” said Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

As budget issues languish, lawmakers have turned their focus to procedural ways to wrestle with spending and the deficit. Bush is pushing hard for a modified line-item veto, and the House last month passed a bill to deliver it to him.

But the idea _ which would allow him to try to weed wasteful items out of spending bills he otherwise signs into law _ faces difficult odds in the Senate. GOP traditionalists such as Robert Bennett of Utah and Christopher Bond of Missouri are cool to the idea, as are most Democrats. A far more sweeping plan to overhaul the Senate budget process also appears to have stalled.

Still, good news about the deficit is on the horizon. On Tuesday, the White House is slated to release a deficit estimate for the year that _ thanks to surging tax revenues _ will be considerably below February’s prediction of $423 billion.

The new White House budget numbers, says Heritage’s Riedl, “could show a deficit in the $300 billion range.”


Andrew Taylor has covered Congress since 1990.

© 2006 The Associated Press