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Democrats ready omnibus budget bill; White House ’encouraged’

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    WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats pressed ahead Thursday with a bill to keep the federal government open for another week as lawmakers fashioned an omnibus spending bill and sought agreement with the White House.
    The stopgap funding bill would fund through Dec. 21 the 14 Cabinet departments whose budgets have yet to pass. It’s expected the omnibus measure will pass by then, allowing Congress to finally adjourn for the year.
    Democrats announced Wednesday they would all but surrender to President Bush’s demand that lawmakers appropriate no more than $933 billion for annual operating expenses for Cabinet departments whose budgets are set each year by Congress.
    Democrats made an exception for a $3.7 billion increase for veterans health care, calculating that Bush and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill would relent in the case of the politically sacrosanct program.
    The White House was quick to say it had not signed on to the Democrats’ omnibus bill, awaiting details of the funding mix within the bill and the resolution of its request for additional Iraq and Afghanistan war funds.
    ‘‘We’re hopeful and encouraged by the movement that we’re seeing on the Hill right now,’’ said White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan.
    The White House does not believe the additional veterans money is needed and previously has issued veto threats if the money for veterans is not accompanied by cuts elsewhere in the budget. That approach has been widely seen as unrealistic, even by top Republicans like House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and former Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
    But with the White House playing such a strong hand in the negotiations, Boehner now insists Democrats stick within the president’s $933 billion figure, with exceptions for border security and a few other ‘‘emergencies.’’
    The issue of Iraq has yet to be resolved, though expectations were growing that Senate Democrats would relent and allow Republicans to provide up to $70 billion in new war funds to the measure, without restrictions that have provoked Bush veto threats, such as a December 2008 target date for withdrawing combat troops.
    The bill will not carry Iraq aid when passing the House next week, though Democrats have said they will attach about $30 billion for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and some domestic Pentagon needs.
    Democrats’ decision to largely hew to Bush’s budget demand caps months of wrangling. Democrats initially crafted bills adding $23 billion above Bush’s budget, devoting the funding to increases for domestic programs such as health research, education, grants to state and local governments and energy research.
    More recently, Democrats worked with pragmatic appropriations panel Republicans such as Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Rep. James Walsh of New York to craft a split-the-differences bill cutting $11 billion from the earlier Democratic measures. That effort collapsed after a White House issued a veto threat Saturday.
    Now, lawmakers led by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and his Senate counterpart Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., are squeezing the remaining funding bills by another 1.6 percent, said a Byrd spokesman.
    The measure would fund every Cabinet department except the Pentagon. Under Bush’s budget, domestic Cabinet departments other than Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs would see their budgets frozen. Considering inflation and population gains, that means most programs wouldn’t be able to deliver a comparable level of services next year as they do now.
    Still, there are steps Democrats are taking to ease the pain. Democrats have shifted at least $5 billion from defense and foreign aid accounts to domestic programs. And they’re added $2 billion in future-year appropriations for education that, for practical purposes, adds to Bush’s budget for next year.

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