Ensign looks to rewrite budget script

With each annual budget, everyone has a role to play.

The president, anxious to appear tough on spending, sends a request to Capitol Hill that is beefy on defense and lean on domestic programs. Budget writers, desperate to look no less tight-fisted than the president, bless his numbers.

Appropriators, charged with attracting votes, boost domestic programs by taking from the Pentagon and restoring the money in massive “emergency” spending bills. Rank-and-file lawmakers look the other way, and the president signs everything that comes to his desk.

Senate appropriators played their part to perfection last week by outlining a plan to shift $9 billion away from defense accounts, but some conservative bit players want to rewrite the script to prevent domestic programs from getting a tough-to-reverse annual raise.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) has an amendment designed to establish a firewall between defense and nondefense discretionary accounts. It would require the Pentagon’s allocation to be established in the annual budget resolution and create a point of order against a defense bill containing less than the established amount.

The idea, similar to an effort by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), is nothing new. Such firewalls have been included in past congressional budget resolutions but were not in either the House or Senate version of the budget this year.

They are popular with a small set of conservative Senate Republicans.

“We should create four firewalled categories of federal spending: defense, international, domestic and homeland, which would be binding and in the budget,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said in a Senate floor speech last month. “This would ensure that security needs would be met and could not be raided during the appropriations process to pay for social spending.”

The Ensign amendment could be offered to a line-item-veto measure in July or to another bill. Ensign’s chances of success on the floor are remote, but earlier this year conservatives coupled long-shot amendments with a veto threat from the White House to whittle a $109 billion emergency war-funding bill down to $94.5 billion in conference.

The assist from President Bush appears to have emboldened Senate conservatives as they try to restructure the congressional budget process to limit spending on domestic programs.

Conservatives successfully pressed Republican leaders to include a biennial budgeting plan and other pet proposals in an omnibus budget-process-reform measure built around a line-item veto favored by the president.

A White House veto threat will hang over any defense bill that gives too little to the Pentagon, according to a missive sent down Pennsylvania Avenue after the House approved its version of the defense bill last week.

“The Administration opposes the $4 billion reduction in funds for the Department of Defense [DOD] included in this bill and will strongly oppose any additional efforts to shift funds away from the Department of Defense,” the Office of Management and Budget wrote.

“If the president is presented with a final DOD appropriations bill that significantly under funds the Department of Defense to shift funds to non-security spending, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto that bill,” the White House budget office wrote.

The size of the proposed Senate shift is clearly more than the White House and conservative Republicans are willing to swallow, but cuts to domestic spending bills make it difficult for appropriators to win majority support.

“The budget resolution does not provide enough money to produce domestic spending bills at levels that even many Republicans will vote for them,” said Scott Lilly, a former staff director for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee who is now a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.

While a minimum-wage debate appears to be the biggest hurdle to House passage of the biggest domestic spending bill, the labor, health and human services and education measure, tight funding levels may also prevent it from becoming law before the November election.

Democrats and centrist Republicans argue that targeting nondefense discretionary spending will have little overall effect on the budget. But conservatives say the Ensign amendment is a positive step.

“There’s 1,000 different holes in the spending dam, and unfortunately one of them happens to be underfunding defense to plus-up other accounts, knowing you can come back later,” Hensarling said. “The firewall would certainly be helpful to at least prevent that type of gimmicking from taking place.”