WASHINGTON – Democrats have unveiled a massive spending bill combining the budgets of 13 Cabinet agencies with increases in aid for lower-income college students, while cutting President Bush's funding requests for foreign aid and closing military bases.
House Republicans such as party whip Roy Blunt of Missouri slammed Democrats plans to advance the huge $463.5 billion measure through the House Wednesday without giving Republicans or rank and file Democrats a chance to offer changes in an Appropriations Committee session or on the floor.
Most lawmakers — and the public — were to get their first chances to read the budget tome Tuesday, barely a day before the House was supposed to vote it up or down.
But Democrats such as Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin had little sympathy, saying Republicans wouldn't make tough budget choices before the election and didn't try to clean up the mess afterward in a lame duck session.
The bill would freeze most federal accounts at 2006 levels, though there are numerous exceptions so agencies can avoid furloughs and hiring freezes, and for a few programs favored by Democrats such as health research and education.
And politically sacrosanct programs such as medical care for veterans and active-duty military personnel eat up much of an approximately $10 billion-to-$12 billion pot scraped together by staff aides by freezing other accounts. Veterans would receive $3.5 billion over last year for medical coverage, while active duty fighters and their families would benefit from a 6 percent hike.
Also among the beneficiaries is the National Institutes of Health, which would receive a $620 million budget hike, about 2 percent. The FBI, facing hiring curbs, would get a modest $200 million increase in its $6 billion budget.
The maximum Pell Grant for lower-income college students would increase by $260 to $4,310. While modest, it's the first increase since 2003.
Activists pressing for big boosts to combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis overseas won a $1.3 billion increase — to $4.5 billion. That's enough to fund the president's $225 million initiative to fight malaria and increase the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to $724 million.
But Bush's request for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which channels foreign aid to countries implementing economic and political reforms, appears frozen.
Some of Bush's initiatives, such as a $5.5 billion request to implement a round of military base closures passed two years ago, absorbed deep cuts. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England warned lawmakers last month that shortfalls for the base closing initiative "could result in postponing scheduled redeployments from overseas stations to the United States" as well as slow the Army's moves to boost overseas deployment in smaller, more nimble fighting units.
Negotiators cut $3 billion from Bush's base closing request, but may look to make up some of the shortfall in the $100 billion-plus Iraq funding bill scheduled to advanced this spring.
It's taken weeks for Democrats to assemble the bill, with little input from vanquished House Republicans but considerably more from old-line GOP senators such as Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pete Domenici of New Mexico.
Any spending package adopted by the House must eventually also make it through the Senate.
Domenici seemed the winner in a dispute over funding to build an Energy Department plant in South Carolina to convert excess plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel. The project's cost has swelled about fivefold from earlier estimates, but Domenici successfully pressed for a funding extension — though House lawmakers succeeded in delaying disbursement of funding until Aug. 1.
There are plenty of reasons for members of Congress to be unhappy, not the least of which is that thousands of pet projects for lawmakers' districts and states have been erased.
That's not to say all of the controversial projects are killed outright. Instead, powerful lawmakers who chair committees and populate the leadership rosters in both parties will shift their efforts to obtain earmarks to lobbying agency officials with letters and telephone calls.
For agencies and accounts targeted by Bush for outright cuts, a budget freeze is in fact a victory. Amtrak's federal subsidy would remain steady at $1.3 billion, about $100 million less than sought by the railroad's many advocates in the Senate. That's a lot better that the $900 million proposed by Bush or the $1.1 billion passed earlier by the House.