Divisions Grow Over Approps

Posted November 6, 2007 at 7:00pm



Correction Appended

Facing continued GOP opposition, Congressional Democrats on Tuesday moved forward with a significantly altered two-bill “minibus” that excluded key rural health and earmark reform provisions backed by Republicans while adding funds for new projects and a million-dollar earmark to fund the Thomas Daschle Center for Public Service and Representative Democracy.

Democrats on Tuesday also agreed to move the separate Defense appropriations bill with a short-term continuing resolution to keep the federal government running until Dec. 14 to give lawmakers added time to attempt to work out spending differences.

And with Republicans expected to successfully use Senate rules to strip out the military construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill away from the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill as soon as today, the partisan mood on Capitol Hill appeared to be hardening.

Republicans vowed to use the minibus as the launching point for a broad attack on what they see as Democrats’ lack of fiscal discipline, while Democratic leadership aides in the Senate said they will look to paint Republicans as out of step with national priorities.

Although aides in both chambers were combing through the minibus at press time, several Republicans said it appears that conferees targeted a number of key Senate GOP provisions, particularly those backed by conservative critics of the appropriations process.

For instance, conferees eliminated three amendments to the Labor spending bill backed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would have put new controls on earmarks — language barring federal agencies funded in the bill from allocating federal funds based on phone calls or other direction from Members of Congress, known as phonemarking; language prohibiting funds from being used by federal workers to violate the rule against premium class air travel; and language prohibiting funds from going to cities that provide safe haven to illegal-drug users through drug injection centers.

Conferees also eliminated two AIDS-related amendments backed by Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The first provision would have directed federal AIDS funding to be distributed to states and cities like San Francisco on a need-based measurement, while the second amendment was aimed at requiring all states to test pregnant women for AIDS unless they opt out.

At the same time, the new conference report includes millions in new projects, which critics have dubbed “air-dropped earmarks.”

Conferees also appeared to have stripped out a prohibition on federal funding being used for the Woodstock Museum in New York, according to a copy of the conference report posted on the House Rules Committee Web site. DeMint, Coburn and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) last month successfully stripped funding for the museum out of the bill and inserted the prohibition.

The bill would not restore the funding — which was requested by New York’s Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton — and appropriators pulled the prohibition out in order to allow the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which would administer the Woodstock project, to apply for other unrelated federal grants. But because the phonemarking ban is lifted, Schumer and Clinton could, in theory, attempt to direct funding to the museum.

The bill also includes a million-dollar provision to fund the Daschle Center at South Dakota State University, which will house the official papers of former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Significantly, while the bulk of the amendments cut were Republican backed provisions, conferees included several new earmarks backed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), including a George Washington University earmark and funding for the University of Utah.

“It’s astonishing that conferees removed the prohibition for the Woodstock museum. Instead of a minibus or omnibus, we may be looking at a groovy bus strategy,” said Jon Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, one of the harshest critics of the Woodstock issue.

A Senate Republican leadership aide agreed argued that the Woodstock museum and Daschle Center funding show that Democrats are unwilling to curb their spending. “Democrats can’t seem to give up on this wasteful project. Leaving the door open for federal funds for a Woodstock museum is another sign of this Congress’ mismanagement and misspending,” the aide said.

Julianne Fisher, spokeswoman for Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) — who along with Reid and Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) sponsored the Daschle language — rejected any complaints about the funding, noting that it is commonplace for Congress to provide money to house the papers of former leaders.

The university will use “the funds to help house his records from his time in the Senate and provide an ongoing forum for studies and discussions on issues affecting our nation by faculty and students of all political stripes. … There is a history in Congress of supporting similar projects of former leaders, including $6 million for the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas in FY1999.”

Democrats, meanwhile, planned to take up the $459.6 billion Defense spending bill combined with a stopgap spending measure Thursday that would keep the government running through Dec. 14. Democrats also planned to separately take a separate Iraq supplemental bill that will be loaded down with strings that likely will include a goal for withdrawing troops by next Christmas and set the stage for another veto showdown.

The stopgap spending includes about $6 billion in new emergency spending for the Gulf Coast recovery and $500 million for recovery from wildfires.

Democrats also are including all the funding President Bush sought for veterans, but not the $3.7 billion in additional spending Democrats have included in the separate veterans’ bill tied to the Labor-HHS-Education bill. The maneuver helps inoculate Democrats from charges that they are playing politics with veterans because they can point out that they have repeatedly sought to give more money to veterans than the president, but they are not willing to do so if it means slicing domestic programs, which Bush has demanded.

The size and look of the Iraq supplemental bill remained in flux Tuesday, although House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) predicted that it would be less than $50 billion and provide a few months of funding for the war, tied to a goal for bringing the troops home.

“By Christmas next year is the date we’ll probably settle on,” Murtha said. He said the goal is to have legislation worked out with the Senate beforehand so it could pass the Senate without changes and go straight to the president.

However, as even Murtha acknowledged, the regular Defense bill allows President Bush to spend billions on the war for months by transferring funds from other accounts. The bill also includes more than $11.6 billion in emergency off-the-books spending for new mine-resistant vehicles headed for Iraq, bringing to about $17 billion the total Democrats have appropriated for the vehicles for the war so far this fiscal year.

Murtha and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the war-funding bill will include some of the same provisions that they have already sought to pass previously, but they would not detail their exact plans.

Pelosi defended the Democratic efforts to end the war, and said she did not have the power to end it on her own by preventing funding from coming to the floor, because Republicans could offer motions to recommit that likely would pass.

“Would that I had that power,” Pelosi said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) summed up the Democratic efforts to try to change the course on the war while continuing to fund it at levels even higher than under previous Republican Congresses. “Obviously if you don’t succeed, you try, try again, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

But Hoyer defended moving forward with the Defense bill without strings attached. “What we have said is we’re going to support the troops. As long as the troops are in harm’s way, we’re going to make sure they get the equipment that they need,” Hoyer said, dismissing the idea of holding up Defense funding.

“It’s not an option for us not to support our troops,” Hoyer said.

Murtha said the war supplemental was kept separate from the Defense bill because the restrictions Democrats plan to put on the supplemental would have endangered passage of the Defense measure.

Correction: Nov. 7, 2007
The article incorrectly stated that Democrats had removed $3 billion in border security funds from the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill during conference. The border provisions were removed from the Defense spending bill.