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White House, GOP squabble over defense spending

From Major Garrett
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rushed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for closed-door meetings with House Republicans to secure their support for the president's defense budget, which was jeopardized by GOP objections to White House demands for $10 billion in defense spending the president -- rather than Congress -- would control.

"They want a $10 billion slush fund and they're not ever going to get that," said one senior House aide, referring to the White House request for $10 billion for ongoing war expenses. "The leadership is in complete agreement that it has to be understood that Congress will decide how to spend that money. Even in war, the administration can't expect to be given a $10 billion honey pot."

The intraparty squabble posed an immediate threat to passage of the House Republican budget, which incorporates much of President Bush's budget ideas. The House is due to vote on the resolution Thursday. Neither the White House nor senior House GOP aides predicted the defense dispute would torpedo the entire Bush budget, but both sides said the issue was a significant and unwelcome irritant.

The White House is seeking $379 billion in defense spending in its 2003 budget. Of that, the White House wants $10 billion set aside for what it calls an "Emergency Response Fund."

Rumsfeld met with senior Republicans on the Armed Services and Defense Appropriations subcommittees. White House and congressional sources readily acknowledged the oddity of having Rumsfeld defend the largest increase in defense spending since the Reagan years to Republicans who considered the Reagan defense budget the bare minimum.

"Of all the wacky things happening this spring, one of the strangest is for Don Rumsfeld to defend the largest defense spending increase in years to a bunch of Republican defense hawks," said Trent Duffy, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.

The White House wants to preserve the president's ability to use the $10 billion fund for unexpected defense costs. Administration officials also said they want to prevent Congress from using the fund on weapons systems or other defense costs it does not support. Several senior GOP aides in the House and Senate have detected other White House motives, specifically having a fund set aside as a down payment on future military action against Iraq.

Duffy said the White House merely wants to maximize flexibility in a fluid situation where military costs can rise unexpectedly.

Nevertheless, House Republicans appear adamant about protecting Congress' ability to spend the defense dollars as they see fit, meaning they could pay for ongoing war efforts, new weapons, or unmet operations and maintenance needs.

The White House originally asked for $10 billion with no congressional strings attached. When Congress dismissed that idea, the White House retreated, asking Congress to approve $10 billion for the response fund, but not specify how it would be spent until the White House came back to Congress later this year with a specific spending request.

But that wasn't good enough for House Republicans.

"There have to be assurances from the White House that the lawmakers who write the defense bills will be full partners," the senior GOP aide said. "The White House has to find some face-saving solution."




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