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Congress and the president appeared to be on a path to resolving a months-long budget battle in the final week before lawmakers adjourn for the year. The House has approved a compromise spending package worth $516 billion. Democratic leaders admit the budget was shaped by President Bush's hard-line on spending, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Nobody on either side of the aisle seemed thrilled with the catchall spending plan that House leaders rushed to a vote late last night. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer sounded resigned that Democrats did not get all they had hoped for from the appropriations process.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland): Would that it had been done sooner, would that it had addressed the priorities that we believe the American public supported strongly in November of last year.
ELLIOTT: But Hoyer said compromise was inescapable, given President Bush's repeated veto threats of the Democrats' plan to spend $22 billion more than the White House's domestic budget request.
Rep. HOYER: I have observed that this president believes that his budget was sent down on tablets, not on paper.
ELLIOTT: House Democrats did draw the line on war spending. The omnibus bill has $31 billion for Afghanistan, but prohibits funds from being used for operations in Iraq. That prompted most House Republicans to vote against it.
Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays.
Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): So what about Iraq, and what about our troops in Iraq? We can fund our troops in Afghanistan but we can't fund our troops in Iraq?
ELLIOTT: The Senate is expected to add money for Iraq when it takes up the spending bill as early as today. President Bush yesterday cited progress on what he called a fiscally sound budget and indicated he could sign the bill as long as it includes funding for Iraq with no strings attached.
To meet Mr. Bush's spending cap, Democrats shifted some $6 billion from programs the White House favored to fund Democratic priorities. Defense, foreign aid and military base construction accounts were shaved to boost housing, education and health care, for example. The measure also includes some $7 billion in emergency funding for veterans health care, border security and drought relief.
The sheer size of the document provided some high drama during the debate, like when Miami Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart labored to lift the bill in protest of getting less than 24 hours to review it.
(Soundbite of gavel)
Representative LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (Republican, Miami): The rules of the House called for three days for members to be able to review bills.
(Soundbite of gavel)
ELLIOTT: Fellow Republican David Dreier of California was impressed.
Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): And I'd simply like to congratulate my friend from Miami for having the ability to as he has just shown on three occasions lift up all 3,000 pages of this bill that we're expected to vote on, which obviously virtually no one...
Rep. DIAZ-BALART: I thank my friend for yielding.
Rep. DREIER: I may have been able to lift it up, but I have not had the opportunity to absorb the legislation.
ELLIOTT: The late-session deal after months of confrontation could be costly to both sides, even though the president appears to have the upper hand at the moment, according to James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
Dr. JAMES THURBER (American University): And I think the American people are showing their ire by their evaluation of the president as well as the institution of Congress. They're both in the high 20s now, which is historic.
ELLIOTT: A historic low, even though budget gridlock isn't anything new on Capitol Hill. But expectations for change, when the Democrats won control of Congress, were high - maybe too high, says Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Mr. SCOTT LILLY (Center for American Progress): The Democrats had a far weaker hand than most people presumed they had from the beginning. If the Republicans have 146 votes in the House and the support of the president, they basically are the majority.
ELLIOTT: Democrats don't have the two-thirds majority they need to override a presidential veto, and they lack the 60 votes needed to prevent Republican filibusters in the Senate. It's been a source of frustration for Democratic leaders.
Here's Majority Leader Hoyer last week on the House floor.
Rep. HOYER: Unfortunately in the Senate the majority does not rule. The Senate has decided that they will let the minority rule.
ELLIOTT: And Senate Republicans will indeed have a say when the subject of funding the war in Iraq comes up, as it surely will as the march toward a final funding compromise continues.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.
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