Spending Showdown for White House, Congress Progress and funding of the war in Iraq tops lawmakers' agenda as they return from a monthlong break. But spending on domestic needs such as education and health care are also to be considered.
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Spending Showdown for White House, Congress

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Spending Showdown for White House, Congress

Spending Showdown for White House, Congress

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

With the House and Senate back in session today after a summer break, lawmakers will be looking at Iraq. They'll be weighing a series of progress reports and debating tens of billions of dollars in new funding for the war. And there's a lot of other spending Congress has to decide on. Much of that is domestic, things like health care and education.

President Bush has already threatened to veto any appropriation bill that exceeds the budget he sent Congress.

Joining us now is NPR congressional correspondent, David Welna. And David, does this mean that the White House and Congress are headed for a confrontation?

DAVID WELNA: Well, I think so, Renee. You know, for one thing, we're less than a month away from a new fiscal year, and Congress has not approved the dozen spending bills or so that are needed to keep the federal government in business. Now, this isn't so unusual. After all, the Republicans who controlled Congress last year didn't pass any spending bills not related to national defense. So when Democrats took over in January, they passed a resolution that kept funding for federal programs at last year's levels, despite a growing population and rising prices. And this has led to some significant shortfalls. Still, when President Bush sent Congress a budget in February that - after taking inflation into account - actually cuts defense spending next year by $10 billion, Congress was taken aback, especially Democrats.

Here's President Bush last month, just before lawmakers left for their August break, declaring at the White House that his budget fully funds the nation's priorities.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Unfortunately, Democratic leaders in Congress want to spend far more. Their budget calls for nearly $22 billion more in discretionary spending next year alone. These leaders have tried to downplay that figure. Yesterday, one called this increase, and I quote, "a very small difference" from what I have proposed. Only in Washington can $22 billion be called a very small difference.

MONTAGNE: Well, $22 billion does sound like a lot of money, but how much, in fact, is that of the total budget for next year?

WELNA: Well, it's about 2 percent of the trillion dollars-plus that Congress has a say over, but next year's projected budget deficit is actually more than 10 times that amount. And it now appears that President Bush will soon be asking Congress for nearly $200 billion beyond that budget for the war in Iraq. In fact, on the same day that the president scolded Congress about busting his budget, New York House Democrat Louise Slaughter accused him of runaway spending on a war that's now costing at least $10 billion a month.

Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): Obviously, this is money that we don't have. We're borrowing mainly from four sources, the first one being China, Japan, South Korea. And Mr. Speaker, as this debt piles up, it will take generations for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, our great-great-grandchildren simply to pay off.

MONTAGNE: Listening there to the congresswoman, it sounds like it's shaping up into a classic guns versus butter debate.

WELNA: Yes, I think so. And I think that we may hear some of that debate even this afternoon, as the Senate votes on confirming former Republican Congressman Jim Nussle to be the White House budget director. Nussle was chairman of the budget committee, and he has a reputation for being very tight fisted when it comes to federal spending. And I think if he is confirmed - and it appears he will be - if he insists on holding spending to what President Bush proposed, there are a lot of Republicans up for reelection next year who may find it pretty costly politically to back him up on that.

In fact, what many lawmakers are hearing is a clamor not for more guns, but for more butter. There are many Republican governors who want to expand children's health insurance along the lines that Congress has proposed. There are many groups that say more federal help's needed in the subprime mortgage meltdown. And you also have a lot of people in states worried that their aging bridges may be the next ones to collapse.

MONTAGNE: And David, what's your prediction about what will happen in the showdown over spending?

WELNA: Well, I think Congress will pass all the spending bills related to defense this fall, though there's likely to be a big debate over the additional money that President Bush wants for Iraq. But then I think we may see a game of political chicken being played out in late fall. Rather than sending the president individual spending bills that could be vetoed, Congress could just roll everything into a big fat omnibus spending bill and dare the president to veto it. And the big political question then would be who'd take the blame for a government shutdown. Congressional Democrats seem to be betting it would be President Bush.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's David Welna.

WELNA: You're welcome.

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