WASHINGTON – Weary after a year of partisan bickering, lawmakers tried Monday to wrap up a sprawling $1 trillion-plus spending bill that chips away at military and environmental spending but denies conservatives many of the policy changes they wanted on social issues, government regulations and health care.
The measure implements this summer's hard-fought budget pact between President Barack Obama and Republican leaders. That deal essentially freezes agency budgets, on average, at levels for the recently-completed budget year that were approved back in April.
Drafted behind closed doors, the proposed bill would pay for the war in Afghanistan but give the Pentagon just a 1 percent boost in annual spending, while the Environmental Protection Agency's budget would be cut by 3.5 percent.
Negotiators on the appropriations committees hope to get a final agreement from top leaders like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- and the White House -- and officially unveil the measure by late tonight in preparation for House and Senate votes before a midnight deadline on Friday, when a stopgap funding measure expires.
The measure is likely to go over like a lead balloon among tea party conservatives, many of whom believe the August budget and debt compromise didn't cut enough. Last month, 101 House Republicans opposed a smaller bundle of spending bills.
Conservative ire is likely to be magnified once the negotiating outcome regarding dozens of GOP policy "riders" is finalized. Republicans larded the measures with provisions aimed at rolling back Environmental Protection Agency rules, such as regulations on coal ash, large-scale discharges of hot water and greenhouse gases from electric power plants, and emissions from cement plants and oil refineries.
The most controversial riders are sure to be dumped overboard due to opposition from Obama and Democrats controlling the Senate. But Democrats realize that they have to show some flexibility to win GOP votes in the House. That means Democrats are likely to accept, reluctantly, a rider that blocks the city of Washington, D.C., from funding abortions for poor women.
"We'll get dozens of riders for industries and the social conservatives," said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee.
In addition to the cut in EPA funding, foreign aid spending also would drop and House lawmakers would absorb a 6 percent cut to their office budgets.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., was pushing until the end to block clean water rules opposed by mining companies that blast the tops off mountains, while House leaders pressed riders to block the Obama administration's 2009 policy lifting restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to families remaining in Cuba.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., abandoned efforts to require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue tough new rules on window blind cords that can strangle children and tiny but powerful batteries that can harm small children if ingested.
On spending, the measure generally consists of relatively small adjustments to thousands of individual programs. Agencies like the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement will get a boost within the Department of Homeland Security, while GOP defense hawks won additional funding to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. The troubled, over-budget next generation F-35 fighter plane program would be largely protected.
Democrats won a modest increase in funding for schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students.
To placate conservatives, money for disasters will be addressed in a separate bill, though on a parallel track as the omnibus measure. At issue is about $8 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would be on top of the $1.043 trillion cap set in August.
It's a sticky issue for conservatives because approving the disaster aid would bring the total amount of money allotted for agency budgets above last year's budget. By putting the aid in a separate bill, the GOP can lean heavily on Democrats to pass it.