Bush vows to veto spending bill

WASHINGTON (AP) ?” The White House promises to veto a huge Senate bill to pay for the rising costs of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and to repair Hurricane Katrina damage unless the cost to taxpayers is scaled back to President Bush’s original requests.

The must-pass $106.5 billion bill exceeds Bush’s February request by more than $14 billion with add-ons for farm aid, highway repairs and aid to the Gulf Coast fishing industry, among others, drawing the ire of the White House and conservative Republicans.

“The administration is seriously concerned with the overall funding level and the numerous unrequested items included in the Senate bill that are unrelated to the war or emergency hurricane relief needs,” said an official White House statement issued Tuesday. “The final version of the legislation must remain focused on addressing urgent national priorities while maintaining fiscal discipline.”

The veto promise was unusually direct and excoriated the bill on numerous fronts. It was invited by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and was welcomed by conservatives who said the bill had gotten out of hand.

“The original request was far from pocket change,” said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. “And yet, we apparently felt compelled to add significant new spending.”

The bill is sure to be carved back in House-Senate negotiations next month, and Bush may very well not have to follow through on his veto promise.

The White House statement said farm aid in the bill is unnecessary after a booming 2005 crop year and that a controversial $700 million relocation of a Mississippi freight rail line would unfairly put taxpayers on the hook for privately owned infrastructure.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., vowed to block attempts by conservatives to strip the project from the bill, saying it is essential to luring residents and business back to Mississippi’s devastated coast.

To accommodate the White House’s objections would require the Senate to shed numerous projects and contrasts with the way the White House dealt with lawmakers on a December disaster aid bill, which approved $12 billion in new spending unrequested by Bush, a boost of almost 40 percent.

Even as the White House raised the potential of a first-ever Bush veto over the bill’s cost, the administration asked the Senate on Tuesday for $2.2 billion more to repair and strengthen levees in and around New Orleans. The request wouldn’t add to the overall cost of the bill since it was accompanied by a decrease in funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds.

But the White House acknowledges FEMA coffers would have to be replenished again in the fall instead of next year under the new proposal.

Bush insists that total spending in the bill be capped at his $92.2 billion request for Iraq and hurricane relief, though he is willing to accept $2.3 billion in the bill to prevent an outbreak of much-feared avian flu. His February budget anticipated the funding, but the White House has been slow to follow up with a detailed request.

And the Senate is poised to approve Wednesday an amendment by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to add about $2 billion in new border security funds – financed by cutting Defense Department funds for Iraq war operations by almost 3 percent.