Washington -- With lawmakers returning today from their summer recess, the Democratic-controlled Congress and the White House are headed for what could be the biggest budget fight in more than a decade - and both sides are relishing it.
"There is going to be a big showdown," said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group, "because both sides believe they have something to gain politically. I don't get the sense that either side is interested in compromise."
President Bush, under pressure from fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party to take a firm hand in erasing the red ink in the budget, is threatening to veto nine of the 12 appropriations bills approved by the House. The White House complained that a number of the bills call for "irresponsible and excessive" spending.
Democrats, writing their first budget bills since taking control of Congress in January, vigorously defend the legislation, eager to increase spending on domestic programs they believe were neglected under Republican rule.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, mocked the president who inherited a budget surplus from his Democratic predecessor and has presided over six straight years of deficits.
"It is truly remarkable that President Bush presumes to lecture Democrats in Congress - or anyone for that matter - on the subject of fiscal restraint," Byrd said.
Setting the stage for what one budget analyst predicted will be "great budgetary theater" is the clock. The 2008 fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and Congress has yet to send to the president a single appropriations bill needed to keep government agencies running.
The House has passed all 12 appropriations bills, but the Senate has passed just one.
Cabinet heads wrote congressional leaders last week urging them to pass appropriations bills "with reasonable and responsible spending levels" before this fiscal year ends.
Bush has proposed expenditures of $933 billion, a 6.8 percent increase from this year's spending levels. That amount does not include direct expenses for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House bills, by the White House's estimate, exceed the president's level by about $22 billion.
No one expects this budget duel to force a partial government shutdown like the ones that occurred in the bitter 1995-1996 budget impasse between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans, led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican. Those shutdowns, which furloughed federal workers and created hassles such as passport backlogs, were seen as a national embarrassment and sparked a public backlash against the GOP.
Congress will likely pass stopgap funding measures to keep the government running.
But heightening tensions between the White House and Congress, Democrats are targeting Bush initiatives for cuts, rejecting his request for more money to double the capacity of the nation's emergency oil reserves and for the Millennium Challenge Account, a program intended to spur economic and political reforms in other countries in exchange for aid.
The budget battle is just one of the clashes expected to erupt between Congress and the White House in the coming weeks.
At the top of the list is a showdown over the war in Iraq. But fights are brewing over other issues, such as a Democratic effort to expand a children's health insurance program and a $20 billion bill to authorize hundreds of water projects, which Bush has threatened to veto but which enjoys strong support even among Bush's fellow Republicans.
Republican Party activists see a budget fight as a way to get back into the good graces of conservatives angry at the growth of government spending under a GOP president and Congress.
Bush started with a $128 billion budget surplus, ran a $158 billion deficit in his first budget and set a record in the 2004 fiscal year with a $413 billion deficit. Congressional auditors estimate this year's deficit at $158 billion.
"Bush could reinvigorate the Republican Party through a veto strategy this year and into next," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "The best gift the president could give Republican candidates is a Republican president vetoing Democratic overspending, which reminds people why you have to have an R in the White House."
Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicts a "long, contentious appropriations brawl."
"The president seems committed to standing his ground," Riedl added, saying it could help Bush rebuild his "fiscal conservative credentials."
Bush and Congress are far apart on a wide range of spending proposals, in particular ones for social and environmental programs that Democrats want to see bolstered.
The House bills would restore or add money for several programs that Bush has targeted for cuts or elimination.
"How can the president say that $200 billion for the wars next year is a reasonable amount but another $22 billion for things like improving health care access for the uninsured, helping families send their kids to college, and preventing cuts to state and local law enforcement is just too much?" said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
Sean Kevelighan of the White House budget office said, "It's time for Congress to end its desire to tax and spend and do what's fiscally responsible - pass individual spending bills that meet the president's reasonable and responsible top-line spending proposal."
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.