As the new fiscal year starts and Congress readies itself for a fight over government spending, Democrats are faced with this unhappy fact: President Bush's veto pen could block their domestic priorities as he corners them into funding a war they would end.
No Democrat is talking about a government shutdown akin to 1995, when Republicans clashed with then-President Clinton. Shutting down the Iraq war remains a Democratic ambition, but without more votes the challenge will be to buy time until spring when the political landscape may be improved.
Lawmakers will approve a six-week stopgap bill to keep the government operating past Oct. 1, but the added time seems short next to the volume of unfinished work before Congress. The House has approved all of its 12 annual spending bills, but only four have made their way through the Senate, and none are ready to go to the president, who has shown little willingness to compromise.
Bush's veto threats cover an array of legislation from the farm bill to Federal Aviation Administration authorization, also unfinished in the Senate. A third target has been a water-resources-infrastructure bill, which cleared the Senate, 81-12, last night after passing the House easily in August.
The defining fight could be over a bipartisan bill that would raise cigarette taxes to pay for a $35 billion five-year expansion of health insurance for the children of working families. If Republicans should vote to override the president, it could lighten the Democratic pessimism""and change the dynamics this fall. But absent some breakthrough, neither Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shows any appetite for weighing into a protracted set of budget fights.
Even the stopgap spending measure became an occasion for insults yesterday.
Bush lectured lawmakers for failing to send him the 12 spending bills for 2008 and suggested Democrats were cooking up a package "thicker than a phone book" and would "put in wasteful spending or pork barrel that they are not willing to debate in the open."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey said Bush sounded like a rooster taking credit for dawn, since the White House already had been assured the interim bill would be kept clean. "He is trying desperately to divert attention from his failed policies in Iraq and prevent a panic in the Republican Party by playing 'Muscles' on appropriations," said the Wisconsin Democrat.
But with the exception of veterans health care and border-security funds, the $22 billion added by Democrats to Bush's domestic budget for 2008 will likely be whittled down. And not funding Bush's new spending requests for Iraq risks having the president call Congress back into session.
"There comes a point when you say you just aren't going to be jerked around and maneuvered by this White House anymore," said Obey, who admits the votes aren't there to sustain this position.
spring, Democrats should know their likely presidential nominee, who will shape the party's message going into the 2008 elections. March 15 is the due date for a new assessment by Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, and Republican lawmakers, who have been fearful of inviting a primary challenge if they go against Bush on the war, may be more willing to break with the administration.
Getting from here to March won't be easy. Democrats are hindered by two problems, in part, of their own making.
In its years out of power, the new majority complained the administration was funding the Iraq war by sending emergency supplemental requests each spring outside the budget. This year the White House has been more forthcoming. Yet now it is the Democrats who want to fund the war-related costs""expected to top $192 billion""on an incremental basis, hoping to gain leverage in the spring.
The second problem for Congress is the lingering hangover from years of earmarks in appropriations bills, a practice that exploded under Republican rule. Independent taxpayer groups said Democrats have reduced the level of pork-barrel spending and subjected the whole process to more public review. But as more information becomes public, the focus on earmarks undercuts the Democratic message that more money is needed for domestic priorities such as education, health care or repairing bridges.
Bush, who tolerated pork-barrel spending under Republicans, has the bigger megaphone in this fight, as well as his veto pen. Given narrow margins in Congress, getting a two-thirds majority to override the president is an uphill fight.
Anticipating the president's veto, the stopgap funding bill includes a provision that would extend the child-health-insurance program past Oct. 1. Democrats want to avoid a repeat of the mid-1990s when the airline-ticket tax expired for some months because of a lapse in passing related authorization legislation.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat and chairman of his party's caucus, was a young aide to Bill Clinton during the White House-Congress spending wars that led to the government shutdown. He has cautioned Democrats against any steps that could come back to haunt them as the shutdown hurt Republicans. But he said he is baffled by the White House posture in not trying to strike a deal.
"I never thought I would say this, but I long for the pragmatism of Ronald Reagan," he said.
Bush veto looms over Congress