WASHINGTON -- House work on a widely backed $29 billion anti-terrorism bill turned into a caustic election-year brawl Thursday over a Republican effort to boost the limit on federal borrowing.
The underlying legislation was virtually sure to win easy approval, perhaps after a grueling session that seemed likely to run until near dawn today.
The bill contained fresh funds for the Pentagon, local police, border security, intelligence and other efforts to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yet the two parties engaged in a second day of often blistering exchanges that underlined themes each party hopes will score points in November's elections for congressional control.
The battle pitted Democratic objections that Republicans were using the bill to quietly raise the debt ceiling against GOP charges that Democrats were slowing urgently needed funds for U.S. forces abroad and other counterterrorism initiatives.
War as political issue
"This campaign of jockeying for domestic political advantages while delaying swift action on our need to send these resources is beneath contempt," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
"It's cut from the same cloth as the shameful campaign to sow doubt about the president's commitment to protecting the American people," he added.
DeLay was referring to questions raised in recent days by Democrats -- and some Republicans -- about why the Bush administration missed indications before Sept. 11 that Osama bin Laden was planning to hijack planes. That fight and Thursday's rhetorical House battle were but the latest instances of a diminishing hesitancy to use the war as a political issue.
With American troops in the field and Memorial Day approaching, DeLay wasn't the only Republican to chide Democrats for delaying military funds.
"American soldiers are dying, unfortunately," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla. "We are going to move this bill to completion."
Comments like those fueled angry Democratic retorts.
"Nobody in this House has any lock on patriotism," said an angry Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
And Democrats took the offensive, saying majority Republicans had tucked the debt-limit language into the popular counterterror measure on Wednesday to let GOP lawmakers sidestep a direct vote on the politically touchy subject of federal borrowing.
"The majority wrapped this bad act in the flag ... and brought it here hoping Americans would be distracted by the waving of the flag. It's a disgrace," Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said.
Amid the verbal warfare, the House rebuffed a Democratic effort to remove the provision by a party-line 215-203 vote.
Everyone agrees that with federal revenues dipping and annual budget deficits returning, Congress must soon raise the current $5.95 trillion cap on borrowing.
President Bush wants that amount increased to a record $6.7 trillion, and administration officials say it must be done by late June or the government will face an unprecedented default.