Democrats May Face Budget Reprisal

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans, in an unprecedented move, are threatening to deny hundreds of millions of dollars in home-state projects to Democrats who voted en bloc against White House-backed funding levels for education and health-care programs this year.

"It is something that's being contemplated," said Speaker Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.) of the retaliation threat. "I can't remember if we've ever done it before. I don't think so."

At issue is the Democrats' refusal -- on the House floor in July -- to support a $470 billion annual budget bill funding the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. As part of final negotiations now with the Senate, about $1 billion is likely to be set aside for designated home-state school and health projects. Republicans are proposing to give House Democrats none of their share, which could be at least $200 million.

The bill is a battleground for union and business interests fighting over proposed Labor Department rules governing overtime pay for white-collar workers. If the leadership chooses to side with business as expected, the extra project money denied Democrats could be reapplied to help solidify wavering Republican moderates to gain final passage.

The move is extraordinary and underscores the deep partisan divide in the chamber. Democrats saw their vote in July as a unified protest against the levels of funding provided for aid to public schools. To be denied project money for their districts is sure to provoke a backlash, especially as the president is asking for $87 billion of emergency funds for commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the new fiscal year under way, most of the government is reliant on a stop-gap spending bill to keep agencies operating. "It would be an unfortunate act for this institution, if at a time when we're trying to pull people together and finish the session that we experience yet another vendetta," said Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Nonetheless, the frustration in the Republican leadership and among senior members of the Appropriations panel is real. Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) said the retaliation would apply to all Democrats as well as the nine Republicans who joined in opposition. "If you can't vote for the bill, you probably shouldn't expect to get large things in your district," said Mr. Blunt.

"They didn't give us one vote . . . It's a fair bill," said Rep. Ralph Regula (R., Ohio), who managed the appropriations bill through the House.

While spending would grow under the House-passed measure, the increases for education and health programs are smaller than in recent years. Many Democrats saw the debate as a turning point for Congress and a retreat from Mr. Bush's commitments to improve public schools.

Discretionary spending within the bill's $470 billion total would grow about 4.3%, or less than half the average annual rate of the previous five years. While Republicans such as Mr. Regula argue that the slower pace is justified, Mr. Obey argues that his party is standing up for a set of political values that won't rise or fall on "something as trivial as individual projects."