WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrats struggling to win increases in health and education programs paired them Thursday with a popular budget bill for veterans, but President Bush held the upper hand in a veto showdown.

With Bush promising to veto a $151 billion bill for education, health and labor programs, Democrats tied the spending to a $65 billion measure for veterans’ programs and military base construction.

The move is aimed at winning a few additional votes for the education and health measure. It offers increases, long sought by Democrats and many Republicans, for community health centers, education, health research and grants to community action groups that help the poor.

Republicans and the White House objected to the maneuver and said it was a ploy to pin billions of dollars in new spending on the backs of veterans. They promised to sustain Bush’s promised veto.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., orchestrated the move from his post as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He said it actually was a step back from a confrontation because Democrats held off on plans to add the $459 billion nonwar budget for the Pentagon as well.

The White House is pushing for Congress to pass each of the 12 annual appropriations bills, for the budget year that began Oct. 1, as separate measures for Bush to sign or veto.

This demand, if met, would increase Bush’s advantage because he could sign the bills he likes and play hardball on those he does not.

“We do not feel an obligation to make the president’s desire to cherry-pick as easy as possible,” Obey said.

Democrats say Bush never objected to catchall spending bills when his GOP allies controlled Congress, nor did he veto any during that time.

As it turns out, the GOP holds the advantage. Senate rule changes this year give Republicans the power to split the veterans’ money from the overall labor and health bill when it comes to the full Senate.

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