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Byrd Fires Warning on Spending

In an apparent attempt to head off conservative Republicans intent on restraining Congressional spending, Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) is circulating a memo warning that without increased funding for some programs the federal government may have to lay off or furlough thousands of key homeland security, consumer safety and health care personnel.

With the current stopgap funding measure set to expire Feb. 15, Byrd and House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) are gearing up for a fight with Republicans over how to make sure that 13 Cabinet agencies, Congress and countless independent government agencies continue to operate for the remainder of fiscal 2007, which ends Sept. 30. Congress already has approved fiscal 2007 funding for the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

The current continuing resolution freezes federal spending at fiscal 2006 levels, and conservative Senators such as Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have pushed to keep the government funded at 2006 levels for the remainder of the fiscal year to trim as much as $7 billion from the discretionary spending budget.

But the Byrd memo predicts that if Congress maintains those levels for the remainder of fiscal 2007, “it would result in thousands of layoffs in the public and private sectors; it would cut off health care for members of America’s Armed Forces; and it would close the doors to medical care for thousands of our veterans.”

One skeptical Senate GOP aide said the memo is just hyperbole from appropriators who consistently resist efforts to rein in Congressional spending.

“This is like the appropriator who cried ‘wolf’ in the sense that they say this year after year whenever a CR is put in place,” the aide said. “The wild accusations they make never come to pass.”

DeMint said on the Senate floor Jan. 11 that appropriators could not be believed.

“You will notice, despite what has been said, we passed a continuing resolution at the end of last year and didn’t pass our appropriation bills. Of course, as you look around, you see the country is still operating just fine,” DeMint said. He added, “I would make the case we need a system that, if we are not able to have ample debate and discussion about appropriations, we don’t have all this fanfare about closing down the government every year and scaring our senior citizens and our veterans that something is not going to come that they need.”

Still, Byrd’s memo provides a useful window into the programs and government offices likely to see modest increases in a $463 billion 2007 joint spending resolution, which could be on the House floor as early as next Wednesday.

Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin stopped short of saying the memo reflected how the joint resolution would be structured, but noted, “The areas highlighted in this document are certainly areas of concern.”

For example, the memo warns that the Food Safety and Inspection Service would have to begin furloughing its entire staff beginning the first week of September, an action that could result in the shuttering of 6,000 meat and poultry processing plants across the country because FSIS staff would not be on site.

The document does not say how much money it would take to keep the FSIS up and running through the end of September.

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