Senate Democrats yesterday dared President Bush to carry out his threat to veto a budget-busting homeland security spending bill while intelligence agencies warn of a persistent terrorist threat.
"If he wants to veto this bill, he will have to explain to the American people why the police department down the street will be getting less support, why the fire station around the corner will be getting less help," said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, who helped draft the bill in the Appropriations Committee.
The Senate yesterday began debating the $36.4 billion bill, which exceeds Mr. Bush"s veto-invoking spending limit by $2.2 billion but increases funding to popular programs supported by both parties such as bolstering seaport security and increasing the number of Transportation Safety Administration screeners at airports.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday said he didn"t know whether his caucus would stand by the president on limiting the size of the homeland security bill, which already has cleared the House.
"We"ll see where my members are at the end of the debate," the Kentucky Republican said.
But Mr. Bush, who has vowed to veto appropriations bill that exceed his funding request, isn"t backing down, said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
"The president has increased funding in a responsible way for our homeland security needs for the country ... without raising taxes, which is clearly what the Democrats want to do," Mr. Stanzel said.
Spending bills are emerging as a key battleground between Mr. Bush and the Democrat-led Congress, as the president seeks to curb spending and re-establish Republicans as the party of fiscal responsibility heading into the next election. But measures such as the homeland security bill will indicate how serious Republican leaders are on the issue.
Mr. Bush has requested a $60 billion increase in discretionary domestic spending over the 2007 budget in the 12 annual appropriations bills that make up the federal budget. Nine of the 12 are expected to surpass Mr. Bush"s spending limits.
The House last night was heading toward passage of a $50.7 billion Transportation and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill that is nearly $3 billion more than Mr. Bush"s request and has garnered a veto threat.
Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, tried to trim some provisions in the bill, but his amendments were easily defeated, aided by solid opposition from his own party.
"We"re trying to get back to fiscal sobriety after a binge that took place for years," Mr. Flake said during the floor debate. "You can justify anything for economic development."
The House has passed nine appropriations bill this year, including the homeland security measure that garnered limited Republican support and is about 22 votes short of a veto-proof majority.
The Senate, which has not passed any appropriations bills, is expected to vote on the homeland security measure this week.
• Eric Pfeiffer contributed to this report.