Budget debate could grow acerbic

DHS spending bill reveals major differences in White House and congressional priorities

Senate committee passes higher DHS budget

Recent threats by the White House to veto the Homeland Security Department’s appropriations bill are more than a comment on the bill itself, some legislative observers say. President Bush, they add, has set the tone for what lawmakers and agencies can expect during the fiscal 2008 budget process.

“The appropriations process very well could be a series of big fights throughout the year,” said Stan Collender, managing director of Qorvis Communications and a federal budget expert. But, he added, “it’s hard to believe it will be harder than in the past few years because they haven’t passed very many appropriations bills.”

Lawmakers traditionally pass the DHS spending bill in mostly bipartisan fashion with little debate about funding increases. Meanwhile, other agency bills languish until lawmakers roll them into an omnibus bill or — as happened in fiscal 2007 — offer a full-year continuing resolution with only scattered, minor spending increases.

The Bush administration’s recent policy statement on the DHS approps bill, however, contains harsher language than usual about spending for first responders, oversight of the Secure Border Initiative, the Integrated Wireless Network program and other technology projects.

The tenor of the impending debate between the Democratic-controlled Congress and the Republican administration could be more antagonistic than at any time in the past six years — and rightly so, some political analysts say.

“The tone is justified,” said James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “There is a different sense from this Congress…to move money to placate interests instead of placating the president’s strategy.”

The primary bone of contention concerns raising discretionary spending limits by $22 billion. In the DHS bill alone, lawmakers want to increase discretionary funding by $2.1 billion.

The White House’s objections extend to the Energy Water Development, and Veterans Affairs and Military Construction spending bills.

Even though some objections reflect business as usual, the tone administration officials used — threatening a veto two times in the first four paragraphs of the Statement of Administration Policy on the DHS appropriations bill — is unusual, political observers say.

“I was surprised by the extent of the objection,” said Michelle Mrdeza, president of MXM Consulting and a former House Appropriations Committee Republican staff member. “Does this set the tone for the rest of the bills? The question is whether Republicans will try to bring the spending bills back in line with the president’s request.”

Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said he wants to cut the DHS spending bill by more than 6 percent to be in line with President Bush’s 7.2 percent requested spending increase.

But if that doesn’t happen, some observers see the president’s veto threat as hollow. Tim Hutchinson, a former Republican U.S. senator and representative from Arkansas and now a senior adviser at Dickstein Shapiro, said he is not so certain that Bush will carry through on his veto threats.“If the president took some stances in the last six years, then the threats might carry more weight,” Hutchinson said.
Congressional plans for DHS funding in 2008The House  approved its version of the Homeland Security Department’s fiscal 2008 spending bill June 15. The Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee approved its version June 14.

The House bill would give DHS $36.2 billion in discretionary funding. Included in the measure is:
  • $258.6 million for the chief information officer’s office, including $33.1 million for the Homeland Security Data Network.
  •  $1 billion for the Secure Border Initiative.
  •  $462 million for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.
  •  $50 million in grants for the Real ID program.
  •  $50 million for interoperable communications grants.

The Senate subcommittee’s version of the legislation would give DHS $37.6 billion in discretionary funding. Included in that bill is:
  • $1 billion for the Secure Border Initiative.
  • $827 million for the Coast Guard’s Deepwater program.
  • $53.4 million for the Transportation Worker Identification Card.
  • A provision ordering the Government Accountability Office to investigate DHS’ use of contractors to fill positions.
— Jason Miller

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