WASHINGTON - Closing ranks behind President Bush, congressional Republicans say they will support his determination to resist further spending this year to tighten homeland security. Their stance sets up a partisan clash with Democrats who are calling for at least $20 billion more in anti-terrorism money.
Lawmakers in both parties say they expect the conflict to be resolved through some kind of compromise before Bush must make good on his threat to veto an emergency spending bill being pushed by Democrats.
But Republican solidarity seems likely to at least delay much of the aid sought by local officials, including Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who complains that his budget has been strained by the extra security measures required since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Many congressional Republicans had initially signaled support for the Democratic measure. But they met yesterday and decided to reverse field and stand unified behind the president.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had originally backed the emergency spending measure and argued to Bush that it was needed. But the Florida Republican said yesterday that after the president's veto threat, he decided to change his position.
"It's just an issue of timing," Young said. Congress, he said, will be prepared to give Bush further emergency money early next year if it is needed then.
"Instead of giving him a contingency fund now that he could use for emergencies, we'll wait until he asks for it next year," Young said.
Democrats relish the chance to make Bush and the Republicans justify their support for $25 billion in spending for corporate tax breaks that the House has approved - but not for such purposes as airport security, customs inspections and relief for overworked police and FBI agents.
"I see it as a debate over priorities," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, who drew the contrast between the $100 billion Republican tax-cut package passed by the House and Bush's resistance to additional public works spending.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee drafted a $20 billion homeland security package, reacted to Bush's threat this way:
"Let him veto it. If he wants to veto more money for anthrax antibiotics, if he wants to veto more money for smallpox vaccines, for more border control, for beefing up state and local health departments, for protection of our bridges and trains, let him veto it."
The president insists there is already enough new money available to spend this year, from the $40 billion relief measure that Congress passed in late September to finance the campaign against terrorism and to help mend the physical and economic damage caused by the terrorist attacks.
Warning that a raid on the Treasury could lead to years of budget deficits, Bush told congressional leaders Tuesday that he would not agree to "one dime" more this year.
O'Malley, who has become a regular visitor to Washington on the issue of terrorism, said on Capitol Hill yesterday that if the city did not receive help from the federal government to help pay for police overtime related to tightened security, he might be forced to lay off workers by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Conversely, the mayor said, a relief package that helps city governments would give the national economy a boost.
"If we're going to win this war - and we must - we have to fund it on two fronts," O'Malley said. "There's nothing more important that we can do to boost consumer confidence in this nation than to invest in the security of all of our local police and local firefighters so that we can keep people secure."
As a practical matter, Congress is so evenly divided that the Democrats cannot pass a bill in either chamber without Republican support, much less muster the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.
"If [Bush] says he's going to veto it, that means the bill will never pass," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who is the Budget Committee's ranking member. "We are not going to vote against our commander in chief in the middle of a war."
Even so, Democrats say they will try to woo some Republican votes when the House Appropriations Committee takes up a defense spending measure next week. They plan to offer amendments calling for further resources for the FBI, for transportation security and to fight bioterrorism.
"We will produce amendments that we believe will appeal to the consciences of a good many people," said Wisconsin Rep. David R. Obey, the committee's ranking Democrat.
Obey, who worked with Byrd to develop the $20 billion Democratic spending proposal, said it could be dangerous to put off the allocation of such emergency money until Congress returns in January. Such a package, he said, could easily be stalled by legislative disputes.
"If we are in a war, isn't yesterday when we should begin?" he asked.
The $20 billion homeland security package is part of the Senate Democrats' economic stimulus package. That package also includes $67 billion in tax cuts for businesses and low-income people, as well as health and jobless benefits for laid-off workers.
But rather than attach his $20 billion package to the tax and benefits portion of the stimulus bill, Byrd said he would try another tactic. He said he intends to use the defense spending bill - the last of the 13 must-pass appropriations bills that Congress is expected to act on this year - as leverage in negotiations with the president.
O'Malley, who also delivered his appeal for relief yesterday to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, said he believes that sooner or later, the city will receive the money it needs.
"I'm still optimistic that there will be a reimbursement of local governments for the cost of this stuff, and some sort of sustained funding for as long as this emergency lasts," the mayor said.
"I feel better now than I did a month and a half ago about Congress and also the White House," he added. "I think only now they're starting to scratch their heads and say: 'By golly, you know what? This stuff does cost money.' And that's starting to sink in."