Spending bill attacked as too fat, too thin by Bush, GOP

WASHINGTON - A bill filled with money for job training, health and education faces a veto from President Bush, who complains that Democratic add-ons have made it too expensive.

Some of the president's fellow Republicans, worried about re-election, say it's actually too skimpy.

The bill, containing $152 billion for social programs including special education, community health centers, Head Start and health research, easily passed the House on Thursday by a 276-140 vote.

The tally wouldn't be big enough to overcome a promised veto from the White House, which calls it "irresponsible and excessive" for busting Bush's budget by almost $13 billion.

That's hardly a sentiment universally shared by House Republicans, who took to the floor over the past three days to complain of inadequate funding for special education, health research and literacy promotion, among other programs.

The Senate has yet to act on companion legislation.

Rep. Michael Castle, a moderate Republican from Delaware, chided Democrats for increasing by less than 3 percent the funding for health research by the National Institutes of Health.

"The amount ... would be almost the smallest increase for NIH in 38 years," Castle complained. "New research opportunities will go unfunded. The number of new therapies will continue to decline."

Perhaps no other bill better defines the ongoing wrestling match over spending between Bush and Democrats controlling Congress. As they press ahead with the 12 spending bills for agency budgets and programs funded by Congress each year, Democrats are adding about $23 billion to Bush's budget, about a 5 percent increase for nonsecurity related domestic programs.

The 125-page bill - accompanied by a 429-page report - weaves increases long-sought by Democrats into programs in the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education such as child care for the poor, the Healthy Start programs combating infant mortality and a $390 increase in the maximum Pell Grant for low-income college students. To build GOP support, there's a big boost for abstinence education.

Half of spending boost

The health and education measure passed Thursday consumed about half of Democrats' planned increases for domestic programs, providing increases for heating subsidies for the poor, rural health care, family planning and grants for local schools.

"This bill, more than any other, determines how willing we are to make the investments necessary to assure the future strength of our country and its working families," said its principal author, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

Moderate Republicans, often from swing districts, pressed for more.

"Increased federal special education funding is critically important," said Rep. Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., who succeeded Wednesday in adding $50 million to the special education budget.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., a physicist by training, won an additional $16 million Wednesday for a program to improve training of math and science teachers.

Bush has stepped up his criticism of Democrats' budgetary moves in recent weeks, including a Thursday speech in Nashville, Tenn., in which he promised to kill Democrats' efforts to add to his budget. He argues that the domestic add-ons, totaling $205 billion over the next five years, inevitably will result in higher taxes.

"If they overspend or if they try to raise your taxes, I'm going to veto their bills," Bush said.

Bush and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill are fighting the Democrats' plans for budget hikes, reaching out to core GOP voters disaffected with their party's handling of the budget in recent years.

Thursday's debate was largely consumed by amendments by GOP conservatives futilely attempting to shave money from the legislation. The amendments were swatted down in later votes.

Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., offered a plan to shave every account in the bill by 0.25 percent but lost by a 177-245 vote.

"Is that going to mean the end of the world as we know it?" Campbell asked. "Is that going to mean that this program is devastated?"

While the numbers sound large overall, lawmakers scrutinizing individual accounts found plenty of holes they wanted to fill.

"Yes, this bill spends $10 billion more on our kids, on our workers, on our obligation to provide access to health care to people who don't have it than the president does," Obey said. "I would do three times as much if I could."