WASHINGTON – Federal aid for education would be frozen under a bill emerging from House-Senate negotiations. Aid for special education would increase by less than 1 percent while programs funded under President Bush's No Child Left Behind program would be cut by more than 3 percent.
To avoid cutting more deeply into education, medical training and Pell Grants, lawmakers are reluctantly giving up about $1 billion worth of home state projects from a sweeping bill funding education, labor and health and human services programs.
The bill remained in negotiations after House-Senate talks Monday night. But the spending levels in the measure, which flow from Bush's budget, as endorsed by Congress, are so low that the lead Senate negotiator, moderate Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, called them "scandalous" and said he may vote against the bill.
"It's that bad," Specter said.
A bill financing energy and water projects got a friendlier reception Monday as the Senate approved a big cut for the budget for the troubled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump while adding $1 billion over Bush's budget for Army Corps of Engineers water and flood control projects.
The $450 million Yucca Mountain budget — down $127 million from each of the last two years — is included in a final bill funding energy and water programs for the 2006 budget year, which cleared the Senate by an 84-4 vote.
House-Senate negotiators also approved money for veterans programs, including $2.5 billion above Bush's original budget for Veterans Affairs medical care, where costs are rapidly spiraling beyond earlier estimates.
The outcome of talks on a bill funding a broad array of social programs within the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education is less clear. The removal thousands of local projects is certain to prove unpopular.
Without hometown projects, lawmakers wary about cutting from No Child Left Behind and other programs have little incentive to vote for the bill, and House GOP leaders are likely to face a big struggle getting it passed before stopgap spending authority expires Friday.
Lawmakers are trying to wrap up work on the 11 spending bills, comprising approximately one-third of the federal budget, that Congress passes each year. After years of consistent increases, the overall budget for domestic agencies — with the exception of the Homeland Security Department — is essentially frozen or even slightly below last year's levels.
Six of the 11 spending bills have passed Congress, and lawmakers hope to complete action on the remaining domestic bills by Friday.
A $453 billion defense bill, though nearly complete, is being held in reserve despite protests from the Pentagon. GOP leaders may use the politically unstoppable bill to carry other legislative freight.
The White House, working with House GOP leaders, has forced the Senate to give up on a series of budget tricks it used to add funding. The Senate has had to relent on plans to transfer $7 billion from defense to domestic programs.
Senators also abandoned more than $3 billion made available through an accounting gimmick for programs including health research, medical training and heating subsidies for the poor. That move came during talks on the labor, health and education measure, which provides $143 billion in funding for programs at lawmakers' discretion.
Without the extra cash, lawmakers were unable to fulfill funding promises made under the No Child Left Behind education law, whose programs would be cut by 3 percent from the previous fiscal year. Research funding for the National Institutes of Health would be virtually frozen after years of double-digit increases.
All told, programs funded by the education and health bill faced a $1.4 billion cut over last year's levels once extra costs to implement the new Medicare prescription drug benefit are factored in.
Delays in the Yucca Mountain project caused lawmakers to curb the budget for the nuclear waste site. Those cuts helped free up funds for the Corps of Engineers, which received $5.4 billion, $1 billion above Bush's request. That includes $8 million requested by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., for the Corps to design a plan to boost south Louisiana's hurricane protection.
The bill also kills off a program to study development of a "bunker buster" nuclear warhead, ending a three-year battle between the Pentagon and lawmakers opposed to the project.