House GOP Keeps Up Pressure on Spending

Republican conservatives kept up pressure to trim spending on a House bill providing money for public lands and conservation, saying it was time to take budget-busting habits.

"These are grave issues. Spending is running out of control in this Congress," said John Shadegg, R-Ariz., who spoke Wednesday as conservatives readied amendments designed to block progress on the domestic spending bill -- the first the House has taken up this year.

"This is not a happy occasion for anybody here," Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., leader of the conservative rebellion, said late Tuesday. Toomey stressed that he had no intention of giving up his plan to offer one amendment after another.

The proposed amendments were handily defeated, but supporters said their goal was to point out the dangers of Congress ignoring President Bush's budget recommendations.

The House bill would provide $19.8 billion for the Interior Department and cultural agencies, nearly $900 million more than the White House requested. Conservatives say it sets a bad example of budget overruns as Congress considers much bigger spending bills covering health, education, agriculture and veterans programs.

"All we're trying to do is stick within the president's request," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the fiscal conservatives. "We're the reasonable ones."

But Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the conservatives were trying to undermine a carefully crafted bill that provides billions for firefighting, conservation, national park operations and Indian health and education programs. "Destroy the process if you want," he said.

Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., opposing the cuts, said the federal government owns one-third of all American land and there is now a $14 billion backlog in maintaining that land. Investing in that property, he said, is "frugal responsible ownership."

The White House, while not opposing the bill, stressed in a statement that fiscal discipline and restraint in overall spending were critical as the nation tries to meet its defense and homeland security priorities.

It said the administration "strongly objects" to an extra $700 million for firefighting that could be used in this fiscal year, saying it had adequate money for this year and "no fire will go unfought this fire season due to lack of funding for fire suppression."

Among other amendments likely to be offered Wednesday is one by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., that would deny federal funds to allow new drilling activity for the 36 oil leases off the California coast.

The Interior bill is the third of the 13 spending bills that must be passed every year taken up by the House. With the nation at war against terrorism, there was little opposition to the spending levels of the $355 billion defense bill and a $10 billion military construction bill already passed.

The Senate has yet to act on any of the bills, but on Tuesday the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an $18.5 billion bill for the Treasury Department, about $500 million more than the White House sought.

To help in the war against terrorism, the bill includes $18 million to fund shipping container inspections at overseas ports and $10 million for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to create a team of explosives exports to train state and local law enforcement personnel.

Another Senate subcommittee approved the biggest spending bill, a $424 billion package to fund labor, health and education programs. It was $3 billion above the president's request.

The Interior bill includes $1.4 billion for conservation programs, $2.2 billion to fight wildfires in the coming fiscal year, $368 million to deal with the maintenance backlog in national parks and nearly $100 million for Everglades restoration.

Young, meanwhile, was looking for ways to pare a counterterrorism bill to the $28.8 billion price tag the White House is demanding. Late last week, House-Senate bargainers had tentatively agreed to most details of a $30.4 billion package, but the administration would not back down from its threat to veto a measure that size.