If there's one annual spending measure that nearly every lawmaker has a stake in, it's the huge labor, health and human services bill. Not only does it bankroll education programs, health services and research benefiting constituents across the nation, the Senate version also has $400 million of earmarks for both Democrats and Republicans.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed the bill, which exceeds the president's budget by almost $9 billion.
Democrats are portraying President Bush's threat to veto this bill as heartless, just as they did when he vetoed expanding health care coverage for low-income children. In an appeal to the voting public, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) put it terms of guns for the war versus butter for the American people.
"Congress is going to ask the president flat out if you're worth our support," Menendez says. "And right now, President Bush is saying he's going to take his pen and write 'N-O, no.'"
It's a fight Democrats seem to relish. They've cast themselves as champions of domestic priorities, drawing a sharp contrast with a president who is wed to what's become a widely unpopular war abroad.
The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, says the cost of that war is what President Bush and others who call themselves fiscal conservatives should really be upset about.
"He's asking for almost $200 billion for this war in Iraq, and quibbling and fighting with us over $22 billion so that we can deal with some of the issues we face at home," Durbin says. "We want to make that difference between the president and the Congress very clear."
There's no mystery what's going on here, says University of Pennsylvania budget expert Donald Kettl. President Bush needs his fellow Republicans in Congress to sustain vetoes, so Kettl says, Democrats have decided to send him bills that could cause considerable pain at the polls for Republicans who side with him.
"The Democrats are trying very hard to set President Bush up for bills that, on the one hand, he doesn't want to sign, but on the other hand, can give them the issues that they want going into next year's campaign," Kettl says.
The question is whether congressional Republicans will continue siding with the president in the brewing spending battle. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell bets they will.
"I think there is substantial feeling in my conference — maybe not unanimous but very substantial — that we ought to hold these discretionary accounts to the overall amount that the president requested in order to show some willingness to restrain spending," McConnell says.
Yet the White House wants to see more willingness to unleash spending — as long as it's for the war in Iraq. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday that President Bush wants lawmakers to approve his war funding request by year's end.
"The president is going to call on them to get this work done before they leave for the holidays. It's the least that they could do for the troops," Perino said.
Back in Congress, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Democrat David Obey, won't be rushed.
"We can look at it next year, but I have no intention of considering that supplemental this year," Obey says. He's ready to defy President Bush's many veto threats, but he still thinks the president could prevail in the end.
"He thinks he can govern this country with one-third plus one, which is enough to sustain any veto, and he thinks that he can run the country with, in essence, a minority government, and he has an advantage in that so long as he's got enough lemmings in the Congress to follow him over the cliff," Obey says.
That might help Democrats win more seats in Congress next year but it also means that in this fight, President Bush could have the upper hand.