- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

While Democrats continue to wage their own campaign this week against the White House over progress in the war, right under the surface another battle slowly boils. And although the congressional majority clearly wants to engage President Bush now on a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the Democrats want to avoid another clash. The fight the Democrats would rather skip concerns spending. But this looming budget showdown is both inevitable and could further erode Congress’ plummeting standing with voters.

Kicking the can for the past couple of months, congressional Democrats hoped to delay this fiscal face-off for as long as possible. And given the wonders of legislative procedures — such as a continuing resolution (CR) — a further temporary delay in hostilities is both possible and likely. But sometime soon Democrats will have to stand up and fight. It’s a clash they will likely lose.

The House — as is usually the case — used its majority procedural powers to muscle through all of its fiscal 2008 appropriations bills before the August recess. But the Senate — keeping with its traditions of cooling the legislative tea — continues to slow down the process, passing only four of its 12 appropriations measures so far this year. So with the end of the fiscal year just around the corner, no appropriations bills have been signed into law — a reality fueling the growing “do nothing Congress” sentiment in the country.

The White House has been itching for this fight for a couple of reasons. First, it’s one on which Mr. Bush can prevail. Thumping the Democrats for spending profligacy is a winning issue. Moreover, it’s a confrontation Republicans in general could use. With the most recent polls showing Democrats leading as the party Americans trust on the issue of fiscal restraint, an old-fashioned political shootout over spending is just what the Republicans need.

Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would rather delay this fight, they have been slow in prodding Democratic appropriators to complete action on their bills. “We thought we would face this fight right before the August break,” a senior administration official told me. “We want to highlight the Democrats’ big spending ways with a veto, but they aren’t giving us a chance to do so.” But with only about two weeks left in the fiscal year, there isn’t a lot of time to finish appropriations bills — or veto many, for that matter.

Democrats will likely pass one C.R. in the next couple of weeks to fund the government until Nov. 16, the Friday before Thanksgiving. This gives lawmakers about a month to sort through the budget endgame and a holiday backstop to force legislative action.

Whatever the short-term tactic, a showdown with the president is now certain. It might come in the form of presidential vetoes over some of the appropriations bills Congress does send to the White House between now and mid-November. It could also manifest itself in the president vetoing a larger omnibus spending bill that rolls all the unfinished business together in December.

One way or another, the stakes are high. If Congress reaches a point where passing another short-term C.R. before Thanksgiving becomes impossible, the prospect of a government shutdown looms large. Either Mr. Bush agrees to more spending, the Democrats consent to less or federal paychecks and services stop. None of those options seem particularly attractive or even realistic at this point.

Year-end budget fights normally put the White House in the driver’s seat. When President Clinton fought with Republicans in 1995 and 1996, the GOP took it on the chin politically in terms of blame for the government shutdown. Recent polling by the Gallup Organization also reveals Americans say the main reason they disapprove of Congress is a because of gridlock and a lack of accomplishment. Prolonged fighting over the budget will only drive those numbers even lower.

Democrats are engaged in a politically risky battle this week with the White House over Iraq. But there is another right around the corner — one that they have been trying to duck — and won’t be able to avoid much longer. It’s a fight the Democrats won’t win.

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