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Veto power could give Bush upper hand in budget fight with Democrats

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    WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress are divided over how President Bush should play his strong hand in the rush to leave town before Christmas.
    Conservatives in the House do not want him to compromise on his demand that Democrats stick to his budget cap and unconditionally supply more money for the Iraq war. A veto threat is even more powerful when Congress enters its end-of-session crunch time.
    ‘‘This is the spending fight we’ve anticipated all year,’’ said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the second-ranking House Republican. ‘‘There’s no reason to lay down a winning hand.’’
    In the Senate, GOP leaders are trying for an old-fashioned deal on a catchall measure that would allow both sides to claim victory. Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, met Wednesday with top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, to explore whether a deal is possible.
    ‘‘We had a good conversation,’’ Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said afterward.
    McConnell is a longtime member of the clubby Senate Appropriations Committee. Lawmakers on this committee are viewed with distrust by hard-line conservatives seeking to using the budget battle to restore the Republican Party’s tarnished reputation on spending.
    ‘‘Obviously, the White House wants sufficient funds for the troops in Iraq, without strings,’’ said departing Senate GOP Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi. ‘‘The president isn’t going to go along with an excessive spending package. He understands that some additional spending could possibly be agreed to. But up until this point ... I don’t think the timing has been right or the attitude has been right, but we’re getting down to the wire here where somebody’s actually got to do something.’’
    Blunt, Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and other leading House Republicans say Bush should refuse to sign any such bill that goes above his request for domestic programs. They promise that Republicans will sustain any veto of a Democratic spending bills, and they came away from a White House meeting Tuesday optimistic that Bush would stick to his position.
    Republicans also relish a fight in which the president has bashed Democrats almost daily over their failure to provide additional money for U.S. troops in Iraq without strings such as setting a Dec. 15, 2008, target date for withdrawing combat forces.
    Democrats say the Pentagon has plenty of money for operations in Iraq until early next year and there is no rush.
    But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday that Democrats will probably provide additional money for Afghanistan and some domestic military requirements, with an aim of ensuring that civilian Pentagon contractors won’t receive pre-Christmas warnings of February layoffs.
    Common wisdom holds that Bush eventually will prevail, just as he did last spring. That has some Democrats figuring they might as well add money now, especially if it would help them wrap up their budget work.
    ‘‘The same upper hand the president has had in previous standoffs he has in this standoff as well,’’ said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.
    Yet some Republicans acknowledge they would not mind watching Democrats fall on their face and limp home without adding much to their list of accomplishments since taking over Congress last January. Even if Democrats surrender on Iraq, they want Bush to keep the pressure on the budget as well.
    ‘‘This is a president and a party who say, ‘No, no, no,’ when it comes to investing in our families, but ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ when it comes to more troops, more time and more money for their stay the course plan in Iraq,’’ said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
    Other Republicans hate the idea of a catchall bill. Invariably they are foot-tall bundles of legislation, typically packed with parochial projects sought by lawmakers, that few people have read before there is a vote.
    ‘‘I haven’t seen anything good ever come out of an omnibus,’’ said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. ‘‘It’s typically an invitation to the all-you-can-eat pork buffet and I don’t know why anybody would want to participate in such a process.’’
    Democrats are pushing a split-the-difference scenario that would cut their $22 billion of so worth of increases for domestic programs such as education, health research and grants for local governments.
    That is a nonstarter with GOP conservatives, though some Senate Republicans have embraced the idea.
    But Republicans are growing concerned that the $11 billion in increases over Bush’s budget are being larded with about $7 billion in ‘‘emergency’’ add-ons. These include money for additional security along the U.S.-Mexico border, help for southeastern drought victims, and more dollars for the Women, Infants and Children program and heating subsidies for the poor.

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