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Budget battle threatens program increases

WASHINGTON - The budget battle over fiscal year 2008 began in earnest Nov. 13 with President Bush's veto of a $606 billion appropriations bill. The so-called ''Labor HHS'' bill - jargon for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education - included funding for Democratic-priority issues such as Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare and home heating assistance. Congress had designated one-fourth of the funding for domestic discretionary spending, items that Congress can initiate or not; the rest was to have gone to entitlement spending, items that must be funded by law.

As the first and biggest of 12 domestic spending bills that finance the government and countless federal programs, the bill served as a premonition of budgetary struggles in the coming election year. Bush vetoed the bill because it exceeded his proposed budget by $10 billion, and threatened further vetoes of domestic spending bills that don't fall in line with it.

Two days later, Democrats, with only a thin majority in both chambers of Congress, failed to override the veto in the House of Representatives. The 277 to 141 vote featured more than 50 Republican defections, but fell 13 votes short of the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., threatened to retaliate by withholding $50 billion in funding for the war in Iraq unless the president consents to troop withdrawals, and Democrats generally relied on telltale numbers to make their case: at the same time that he vetoed a domestic spending bill over $10 billion (the approximate monthly cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), Bush signed into law an appropriations bill that increased the non-war budget of the Defense Department by almost 10 percent to $459 billion, while standing by a request for $196 billion in war funding.

But on Nov. 16, Republicans successfully deflected a bill that would have approved $50 billion in war funding over the winter, providing the GOP and the president consent to troop withdrawals Bush has consistently rejected.

Both sides in the debate are entrenched in their positions and unpopular with the public, leading a number of political analysts nationwide to speculate on the likelihood of a stalemate over spending that could lead to a government shutdown. More certain is that budget stalemates will lead to continuing resolutions on the budget that will keep federal programs going until a full federal budget can be enacted. The latest turn, according to a Washington Post analysis, is that Democrats believe they can oppose further war funding without undue political risk because the Defense Department, if necessary, can reprogram portions of its already-approved $459 billion budget for war purposes. In theory, the funding redirected to the war from spending at the end of fiscal year 2008 would be restored between now and then with supplemental appropriations from Congress. The GOP continued to demand war funding without strings attached, and the Pentagon on Nov. 20 announced that it is planning on layoffs if Congress does not enact Bush's requested $196 billion in war funding.

For Indian country, the immediate concern about the budget showdown is that continuing resolutions on the budget, in place of an enacted annual budget, will lead to the same-as-last-year funding levels that

characterize continuing resolutions - nullifying funding increases in certain Indian-specific programs and putting a freeze on complex funding formulas that depend on an increased budget allocation against past fiscal years to trigger gains in present and future fiscal years.

For example, the funding increases for Indian Head Start, provided for in the Head Start Act reauthorization, are dependent on the overall Head Start program receiving enough new funds to cover at least half the cost of inflation. If enough such funds are not appropriated, Indian Head Start will not get the special increases provided in the reauthorization.