House passes Pentagon budget with war funding still at issue

Friday, November 9, 2007

Since his re-election,Bush has sought to cut the labor, health and education measure below the prior year level.

WASHINGTON -- The House on Thursday approved a big boost in the Pentagon's non-war budget for President Bush's signature, even as a spending bill containing far smaller increases for health and education programs headed for a certain veto.

The confluence of the votes reflected Bush's dominant position in the year-end budget battle pitting the White House against Democrats controlling Congress. The $471 billion defense budget -- awarding the Pentagon with a 9 percent, $40 billion budget increase -- passed the House by a 400-15 vote. A Senate vote was scheduled for late Thursday.

At the same time, House Democrats fell three votes short of winning a veto-proof margin on the health, education and job training bill, a top party priority.

The Pentagon bill only funds core department operations, omitting Bush's $196 billion request for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for an almost $12 billion infusion for new troop vehicles that are resistant to roadside bombs.

The House-Senate Pentagon measure is Bush's top priority in the budget endgame consuming so much time and energy on Capitol Hill. It would be the first of 12 appropriations bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1 to be signed into law.

Bush has in turn promised to veto Democratic-driven increases for domestic programs, and nowhere are those Democratic priorities more evident than on the labor, health, human services and education funding bill, which passed by a 274-141 vote. It is by far the largest bill funding domestic programs.

The Democratic-driven bill contains $151 billion in discretionary appropriations under lawmakers' direct control. More than any other spending bill, it defines the differences between Bush and his Democratic rivals.

Since winning re-election, Bush has sought to cut the labor, health and education measure below the prior year level. Lawmakers have always rejected the cuts, but the budget that Bush presented in February sought almost $4 billion in cuts from levels for the 2007 budget year.

Social programs

Democrats responded by adding $10 billion to Bush's request for the 2008 bill, with another $2 billion in future-year funding devoted to education. The increases cover a broad spectrum of social programs back by Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Bush has stood firmly against Democrats' attempts to add $23 billion to his cap of $933 billion for programs whose budgets are passed each year by Congress.

As long as he can command veto-sustaining margins -- as Republicans in the House have promised to provide -- Bush is in a commanding position.

Democrats say the increases for domestic programs are small compared with Bush's pending war request totaling almost $200 billion.

At the same time, Bush received all but $3.5 billion of his record request for defense programs.

Much of the increase in the defense bill is devoted to procuring new and expensive weapons systems, including $6.3 billion for the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, $2.8 billion for the Navy's DD(X) destroyer and $3.1 billion for the new Virginia-class attack submarine.

Huge procurement costs are driving the Pentagon budget ever upward. Once war costs are added in, the total defense budget will be significantly higher than during the typical Cold War year, even after adjusting for inflation.

The defense measure also provides enough money to give U.S. military personnel a 3.5 percent pay raise, an increase of half a percentage point over Bush's budget request. The bill also provides $6 billion to finance growth in U.S. troop strength by 5,000 Marines and 7,000 Army soldiers.

Meanwhile, House Democratic leaders put off plans to vote as early as Friday on a separate bill to provide a "bridge fund" of $50 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, contingent on Bush starting to bring troops home. Liberal Democrats were balking at providing the money, even with the strings attached.

A stopgap funding bill expires next week, so the defense measure contains an extension to keep government agencies open until Dec. 14.

The Army's Future Combat System, a computerized system designed to transform the service's war fighting abilities, would absorb a 5 percent cut from Bush's request. It, too, has been plagued by cost overruns.

House-Senate negotiators met Thursday on another domestic bill, a $50.9 billion transportation and housing measure that exceeds Bush's budget by $3 billion. It reverses cuts sought by Bush to Amtrak, federal housing programs and subsidies for money-losing air routes to rural airports. It also faces a Bush veto threat.

The bill contains $195 million to replace the collapsed Interstate 35W span in Minneapolis.

Negotiators retained language to block the Transportation Department from going ahead with a North American Free Trade Agreement pilot program giving Mexican trucks greater access to U.S. highways.

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