Bush plans to veto defense bill, if Dems attach other spending

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush told congressional leaders over breakfast Wednesday that he will take the extraordinary step of vetoing the Defense Department appropriation if Democrats insist on attaching $35 billion in anti-terrorism spending.

"The president made it plain as day: If you're going to attach anything else to it, attach it, send it to me, I'll veto it, I'll send it right back to you and then you can go to work," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said after Bush's weekly morning huddle with the four House and Senate leaders.

Democrats muscled the measure through the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday on a mostly partly-line voice vote. It was attached to a $318 billion defense measure the full Senate is likely to debate Thursday.

"The president believes very strongly that, at a time when the nation is in the midst of a war, that war should not be fought on last year's budget," Fleischer said.

"The Pentagon needs additional resources to fight the war and that defense funding should not be complicated or clouded as a result of items that do not pertain to the war on terrorism internationally for the Defense Department."

The bill includes more money for bioterrorism, the postal service, federal and local law enforcement, security at airports and ports, and securing Russian nuclear material so it won't fall into terrorists' hands. It would match Bush's proposal for defense spending, but exceed it for domestic security and aid to New York and other areas that bore the brunt of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Vice President Dick Cheney set the stage for partisan clash on Wednesday, when he reminded GOP senators during a lunch that Bush, who campaigned on a promise to boost military spending, would actually veto defense legislation containing the anti-terror money if it exceeds the president's $20 billion request.

And Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, top Republican on the Appropriations panel, acknowledged that he was under White House pressure.

"Had the president and his people not made a strong request to me to support his position, I would have supported" the extra funds, Stevens said.

But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had strong words of his own about the Democratic plan.

"This may be one of the most important investment decisions we will be making in this Congress," he said.

Lacking a majority, Senate Republicans may have no option but to block the extra anti-terror spending by using the chamber's procedures. They could derail the entire defense bill with just 41 votes because the legislation exceeds budget limits.

"We are committed to maintain the president's position," Stevens told reporters.

Yet that could be a politically tricky vote at a time when U.S. troops are in combat in Afghanistan and the public and government officials are focused on the terrorist threat at home.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chief author of the proposal, said his plan was inspired by the need to protect the country, not embarrass Republicans.

"God may strike me dead right on this spot if I were offering this amendment for political purposes," Byrd told reporters.

Bush has made the battle a test of fiscal prudence at a time when budget surpluses are evolving into deficits. He has said he will consider requests for more anti-terror spending early next year.

In the days after the attacks, Congress approved $40 billion in emergency anti-terrorism spending and gave Bush control of half of it. The remaining $20 billion must be approved anew, in detail, by lawmakers.

Last week, the House voted to deny Democrats a chance to add $23 billion to that chamber's version of the $20 billion package.

Overall, Byrd's proposal would provide $20 billion to New York and other communities hurt by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Bush and the House bill would provide about $11 billion.

Byrd would also provide the same $21 billion Bush wants for defense.

The underlying defense bill would let the government lease 100 Boeing 767 aircraft and convert them into refueling tankers. The $20 billion program would upgrade the Air Force's aging tanker fleet and help the ailing aircraft manufacturer.

The bill would also provide up to $8.3 billion -- the amount Bush requested -- for anti-missile defense. And it contains funds for a pay raise of at least 5 percent for military personnel.

The Senate also gave final congressional approval to a $59.6 billion transportation bill that would clamp safety restrictions on Mexican trucks entering the United States. Bush is expected to sign that bill.