Supplemental in conservative crosshairs

Senate conservatives are considering sending a letter to President Bush urging him to issue a veto threat against a $106 billion emergency supplemental spending bill.

If pursued, the letter would be the strongest signal to date of a commitment to pare a war-funding measure that conservatives say has been larded with unnecessary extras. Supporters would be unlikely to send a letter without 34 signatures, the number of votes needed to sustain a veto.

Such a letter is “under discussion,” according to a senior Senate Republican aide who cautioned, “I am unaware of anyone drafting [a] letter at this time.”

By week’s end, the Senate’s most vigilant spending hawks are expected to offer amendments to strip billions of dollars from the bill, which would provide funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and hurricane recovery on the Gulf Coast. The fiscal conservatives are outraged by spending items they say should not be included under the umbrella term of “emergency” appropriations.

Few expect the conservatives to inflict serious damage to the bill’s bottom line, which the Appropriations Committee approved easily. And it is possible that money actually could be added before final passage.

Still, right-leaning groups have been pushing conservatives in Congress at least to put up a fight and give voice to frustration over what they view as profligate spending.

“The conservative movement as a whole is very upset right now,” said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

But any fireworks on the floor could presage changes in conference, according to Republican aides and conservative activists.

The battle, Darling said, is “important even if the votes aren’t there to strip out pork” — a term used by critics to describe provisions of spending laws that are intended to help narrow constituencies.

“Spending is the first thing you hear about when you go out and talk to conservative-base folks,” said Ed Frank, communications director at Americans for Prosperity, a conservative nonprofit group.

Several conservative leaders plan to participate in a press conference this morning to urge the Senate to strike certain earmarks from the bill. They have singled out a $700 million provision that would allow Mississippi to buy just-repaired railroad tracks from CSX and relocate the route to make room for a road and business development along the coast.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is expected to offer an amendment to strike that provision.

Amendments could also be offered to slash all funding above the president’s request, strike individual provisions or raise points of order against the designation of certain items as “emergency” spending. Under Senate rules, it would take 60 votes to overcome the latter tactic.

But fiscal conservatives are pitted against appropriators, a powerful bunch whose allocation of federal spending wins them many allies on the floor. As fellow lawmakers scramble to send goodies back home on a bill that could be the last major spending vehicle before the next election, symbolic victories may be all conservatives can hope to claim on the floor.

They hope to demonstrate support from the White House through a strongly worded statement of administration policy and from party leaders either on the floor or once the bill reaches conference.

The House passed its version of the emergency supplemental March 16. That bill came in just under the president’s request of $92 billion.

But Senate appropriators voted for about $14 billion more, outdistancing the president’s request for Gulf Coast recovery by $7 billion and adding $4 billion for farm programs, $2.3 billion to combat a future pandemic flu outbreak and $643 million for port security. Even some Appropriations aides were surprised by the spending splurge overseen by Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Just one member of the committee, Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), voted against the 12-figure spending package. Gregg wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal last week that questioned the use of emergency supplementals.

“It is time to rein in so-called ‘emergency spending’ and to adopt substantive budget reform,” Gregg wrote. “It is time to plug the hole in the budget and maintain just one set of books.”

The House has yet to pass a budget resolution, and it is unclear whether appropriators will be able to approve domestic spending bills under tight spending caps before the November election.

The extra spending may well be spread wide enough for Cochran to enjoy strong support on the floor for the bill his committee reported.

One provision would release nearly $600 million from the treasury to pay for backlogged transportation projects on a list kept by the Federal Highway Administration. The list of requests for disaster-relief spending includes items in 32 states.

“This bill will test whether lawmakers are really serious about reining in runaway spending,” Brian Riedl, a Heritage budget analyst, said in an e-mail sent out yesterday.