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Republicans Look to Retaliate Against WH Over Ill. Prison Sale

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo

The Obama administration move to purchase a prison in Illinois has generated outrage among Republican lawmakers, but there may not be much they can do to stop it.

Aides acknowledge that the federal Bureau of Prisons has the authority to make the purchase of the unused state prison in Thomson, Ill., but that it is highly unusual for the executive branch to make such a move over opposition from Congressional appropriators.

That’s because the spending chiefs sometimes make life more difficult for departments and agencies that go against their will, even if they have the legal authority to do it. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) appears to be particularly upset by this particular purchase, and the House could attempt some corrective action during the post-election lame-duck session. But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has championed the acquisition and would seek to stop any effort to derail it.

Illinois and Iowa lawmakers in both parties have backed the prison purchase because it has the potential to create jobs in both states. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) questioned the White House decision to move forward without the support of the Republicans in Congress but noted the facility would be a boon for the local economy in Clinton, Iowa, which sits on the Illinois-Iowa border and is about a 12-mile drive from the facility. Home developers told local media in Iowa that they expect a boom, too.

Reps. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) and Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) ultimately praised the move in a joint statement when it was announced.

“The bottom line is that this is a welcome development for our region, particularly those who have been struggling to find good jobs. Thomson Correctional Center has been sitting empty for 10 years, costing the residents of Illinois millions of dollars in upkeep and keeping many Illinoisans and Iowans out of work each year,” they said.

In a season when everything has political undertones, news of the prison purchase came Oct. 2, the same day that Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) held a town hall in Clinton, the hometown of his wife, Janna.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, says she opposed the request to transfer the funds from other Justice Department accounts needed to make the $165 million purchase from the state of Illinois.

“The decision by President Obama to purchase the Thomson Prison in Illinois is an unprecedented move that ignores the clear intent of Congress,” the Texas Republican said in a statement this week. “This expenditure has not been approved by Congress. It amounts to moving money from funds appropriated for other purposes.”

A Hutchison aide said today that there are no immediate plans to take further action against the prison purchase, however.

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