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Senate gets to slow start on contentious defense bill



By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Senate Democrats pressed ahead Thursday afternoon with their version of a fiscal 2002 spending bill for the Defense Department that includes $15 billion in extra funding for homeland security and recovery efforts following the attacks of September 11 -- $15 billion the White House refuses to endorse.

The Senate's majority party brought the bill to the floor Thursday over the angry objections of Republicans, and in the face of a stark veto threat leveled the previous day by the White House. Majority Leader Tom Daschle said the extra monies, approved just this past Monday by the full Appropriations Committee, were needed immediately, with the nation on continuous alert for the eventuality of more terrorist strikes.

Threats of vetoes and expected parliamentary maneuvers and stalling tactics by Senate Republicans, said Daschle, D-South Dakota, would not convince Democrats to back down.

"We have to be ready when something happens," Daschle said, speaking of how Democrats planned to handle Thursday's debate. "That's what this fight is all about. If we have no other options, then we will offer amendments piece by piece."

"It will be my intention to stay on this bill until we finish it," he said.

Daschle's determination -- and the Republican's distaste for being made to battle over extra spending that they say violates a previous agreement with the White House -- has set up a partisan conflict that could drag into this weekend. And the battle could lead to a wider legislative war that may not cool down until Congress leaves Washington for the year.

Debate could tie into stimulus bill

Discussions over the defense spending bill, which the White House wants to have resolved quickly as the anti-terror war continues apace, are likely to tie into completion of the Senate's stalled economic stimulus package.

Daschle earlier this week removed the $15 billion for homeland security and recovery from the Senate version of the economic stimulus bill in order to move closer to a deal with House Republicans, who shepherded their own stimulus measure through the lower chamber weeks ago.

While movement on the stimulus bill has been torpid, and agreement on the defense bill looks to be out of reach for the moment, Daschle hinted Thursday he could take the $15 billion off the defense bill if it runs into too much opposition, and put it right back into the stimulus bill.

As written, the full Senate military spending bill is now worth some $353 billion. Of that, $318 billion matches the Bush administration's defense funding request.

Indeed, the White House and Senate are on the same page as far as Pentagon funding, and as far as an included sum of $20 billion that accounts for half of the $40 billion agreed to by Congress and the White House earlier this year for anti-terror and cleanup efforts.

But the White House and Senate Republicans argue that the extra $15 billion wanted by Senate Democrats exceeds discretionary spending limits set in an agreement forged earlier this year, and violates the spirit of the $40 billion post-September 11 initiative.

"They agreed $686 billion in discretionary spending was an adequate level," said a visibly agitated Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, on Thursday. "That deal was not a deal. The Department of Defense bill is a deal-breaker."

The added language calls for increased spending on anti-bioterrorism and food safety efforts; aid to local law enforcement agencies; extra security at mail and nuclear facilities; and stepped-up transportation and border security efforts.

"It has been documented in most newspapers and the media that terrorist cells that some of the cells, some of these networks, have weapons of mass destruction that they intend to target toward the United States," Daschle said on the Senate floor. "If they have been successful, it is a reasonable assumption that the United States will be the first to experience these attacks, so it will be critical of us to do all that we can to prepare."

"The time to do it is now, before these incidents occur."

Republicans: wait until next year

Craig, one of the first Republicans to speak on the floor, insisted circumstances have not changed, and repeated White House assertions that further spending could be considered in a supplemental bill early next year.

"There is still a lot of money out there to spend," he said.

Republicans have a number of procedural options available to them as the debate continues into the next several days. The most likely would invoke a Senate rule allowing them to block progress of an appropriations bill if it exceeds budgetary authority.

But compromise will have to be reached on this bill. It is required by law, and is one of four spending bills for fiscal 2002 left to be resolved. The fiscal year opened on October 1.

"There is a long day ahead of us," said Appropriations ranking Republican Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who leads the debate for the GOP. "I wish I could say I looked forward to this debate."