Finding Pork in the 'Bullets and Beans' Bills

President Bush's veto threat against the Iraq war-spending bills in Congress has been tied to objections to a timeline for troop withdrawals. But he's trying to shift the focus to non-military spending contained in the bills.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

And now, two stories to offer insight into how Washington works. In a moment, NPR's Linda Wertheimer reports on how and why Republicans are regrouping.

First, President Bush is standing firm in his threat to veto legislation funding the war in Iraq. He objects to timelines both the House and Senate have set for withdrawing U.S. troops. He's also unhappy about the $20 billion in non-military spending lawmakers tacked onto the bill.

NPR's Peter Overby explains how those goodies got added.

PETER OVERBY: The earmarks, the provisions to help this or that interest group, are drawing plenty of attention. President Bush zeroed in on one last Thursday, when he spoke to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Senate Democrats have loaded their bill with special-interest spending. The bill includes $40 million for tree assistance…

OVERBY: It's an easy target because the provision extends the Agriculture Department's Tree Assistance Program to provide more help for Christmas tree farms. When lawmakers decorate a spending bill with amendments, it's called a Christmas tree bill. So here's the story behind the Christmas tree provision.

The Tree Assistance Program has been around five years. It gives tree farmers money to replace trees after disasters, but if a Christmas tree farmer needs to mend trees, say trees that have been blown over by hurricane winds, it won't cover that.

Mr. STEVE MANNHARD (Business Owner, Fish River Trees): My name is Steve Mannhard, and my business is called Fish River Trees.

OVERBY: Steve Mannhard is in Alabama, down near the Gulf Coast. When we talked, he was on his way into town for supplies. Fish River Trees is mainly what's known in the trade as a choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm.

Mr. MANNHARD: We produce about 2,000 container-grown Christmas trees that we call living Christmas trees, as well as about 5,000 trees that the customers come to the farm, and they cut their own.

OVERBY: In 2005, Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina punished Fish River Trees. Staking trees upright again and pruning away damaged limbs cost Mannhard about $40,000. But he couldn't apply to the Tree Assistance Program, unlike the farmers around him.

Mr. MANNHARD: They were getting help, like the pecan grower across from me. He was getting assistance; I was not. And we always felt that that was unfair that one type of tree would get assistance from a government program than the other.

OVERBY: Do you wish it had been in a different bill?

Mr. MANNHARD: If you're asking my personal opinion, it didn't have any business being…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANNHARD: …it didn't have any business being attached to a spending bill that would fund soldiers in a war zone, but that's the way Congress works.

OVERBY: The Christmas tree provision is hardly the only ornament that's been hung on the War Supplemental Bill. Some critics have even suggested that Democratic leaders added provisions to win votes.

One lawmaker named as possibly won over by the promise of local spending for rural schools was Congressman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat. DeFazio points out that he's voted for three previous war supplemental bills and liked this one even more because it sets a timetable for withdrawal.

Representative PETER DeFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): So to spin some bizarre theory that somehow my vote was bought, if it was bought by anything, it was bought by the timeline.

OVERBY: And meanwhile, Republicans weren't exactly unified in resisting the Christmas ornaments. On Thursday, GOP Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina interrupted the debate in a bid to knock the Christmas tree provision out of the bill.

Senator JIM DeMINT (Republican, South Carolina): This section in the bill deals with the Tree Assistance Program has no business being in a war supplemental. It's clearly legislating on a appropriation bill, and I think it violates Rule 16.

OVERBY: Rule 16 says that all provisions must be directly related to the main purpose of the bill. It's a rule with some flexibility. The presiding officer was Illinois Democrat Barack Obama. He called the vote.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): The question is: Is the amendment germane? All those in favor say aye.

Unidentified Senators: Aye.

Sen. OBAMA: All those opposed, nay.

Unidentified Senator: I ask for the yeas and nays.

OVERBY: The tally was 57 to 41 to keep the Christmas tree provision in the bill. The winning margin? Most of it came from seven Republicans voting against their colleague and for the tree farmers.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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