Spending Showdown Awaits Congress

Once Congress returns from the Thanksgiving holiday recess lawmakers can look to end the year under Democratic rule mired in a spending standoff with President Bush. The last big standoff over federal spending was when a Republican Congress contested President Bill Clinton.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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Congress, now on a holiday recess, can look ahead to the end of the year under Democratic rule mired in a spending standoff with the president. This harkens back to another big standoff over federal spending back when it was a Republican Congress locking horns with a Democratic president. At the time, it proved far more costly to the Republicans than it did for President Clinton. This time, President Bush may or may not come out ahead.

Here's NPR's David Welna with more.

DAVID WELNA: The battle congressional Republicans had in 1995 with the White House was not just over annual spending bills. It was more about their insistence on balancing the budget for the next seven years by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars in spending. Even as much of the federal government shut down, then President Clinton stood his ground.

President BILL CLINTON: They want to make the price of opening the government up. My acceptance of seven long years of unacceptable cuts in health care, education, in the environment, in research and technology.

WELNA: In striking contrast, the current occupant of the Oval Office is accusing the Democratic Congress of busting his budget.

Here's what President Bush had to say last week, the day he vetoed a huge domestic spending bill that cost 1 percent more than it did last year.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The majority was elected on a pledge of fiscal responsibility. But, so far, it's acting like a teenager with a new credit card.

WELNA: House Republicans narrowly defeated the Democrats' attempt to override the president's veto.

Arizona's Jon Kyl, the Senate's number three Republican, says the message of last year's election was Congress is spending too much.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): We have now gotten the messages as a Republican conference, and, as you saw, are willing to sustain these vetoes of the president over funding. I think Democrats go against that at their own peril, knowing how our constituents feel about wasteful spending.

WELNA: Nonsense, says David Obey. He's the Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin; Chairman, House Appropriations Committee): I don't think that the American people think that cancer research is wasteful. I don't think they think vocational education is wasteful. I don't think they think funding for handicapped education is wasteful. Fifty-some Republicans voted for that bill. If you want to talk waste, let's talk about the $200 billion that the president has squirted away in the dumbest war started by any president in American history.

WELNA: Obey is confident Democrats are playing a winning hand.

Congressional expert Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution says he may be right.

Dr. SARAH BINDER (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): The reverse from the situation in '95, I think, is important here. It's relatively easy for Democrats to sell a message. Look, we want to provide funds for these critical government functions, all right? And that tends to be an argument that Democrats (unintelligible) can win.

WELNA: Some moderate Republicans have sided with the Democrats in the spending showdown. One of them is Maine Senator Olympia Snowe.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): I think the administration has to understand that they have to accommodate the concerns and the interests, you know, of those of us here in the legislature branch on some of these key programs.

WELNA: In fact, Rutgers University's Ross Baker says it may become increasingly difficult for other Republicans to back the president when he vetoes spending bills. That's because most of them have spending in those bills earmarked for their districts.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Rutgers University): I think that the Republicans who do want to be reelected are going to want to get to those earmarks in there. Earmarks are blessedly bipartisan.

WELNA: Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson thinks there are other reasons why this year won't be a repeat of what happened in 1995.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): I don't think the government will shut down in the middle of a war, so I don't think we'll get the same kind of a standoff that we had then. I think you'll find that there'll be more opportunities to work out some of the differences.

WELNA: And as the Brookings Institution's Binder notes, the $22-billion difference between what President Bush and the Democrats want to spend is less than 1 percent of the overall budget.

Dr. BINDER: But the broader, I think, story here is one about political efforts to gain the upper hand here, knowing that one of the big debates in '08 over congressional control will be can the Democrats govern, right? And can we, in fact, perhaps trust them with both the White House and Congress in whether there's a danger in returning them the power.

WELNA: The spending feud heats up again when Congress gets back the first week of December.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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