House Passes Unusual Budget Plan for Remainder of Fiscal Year

The House of Representatives passed a $463.5 billion federal budget proposal on Wednesday that would settle most budget questions for the rest of the fiscal year but would circumvent the usual budget process, leave existing appropriations bills unfinished and put off some new spending projects until next year.

The continuing resolution passed on a largely partisan 286-140 vote. The vote sends the bill to the Senate for consideration. If the House and Senate agree on the plan, the bill goes to the president for his signature.

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The bill comes as a modified form of the 2006 fiscal year budget, which ended Sept. 30, 2006. It would cover the remainder of the 2007 fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, 2007. The action in the House comes only days before President Bush is expected to release his new budget plan for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The proposal raised partisan hackles, with Republicans saying they had been left out of the budget process. The bill's Democratic backers countered that it was the best option to wrap up a budget that had been ignored by Republicans who held power until Jan. 4, more than three months after the last budget expired.

Continuing resolutions usually are short pieces of legislation only a handful of pages long and designed to extend funding at current levels for short periods while Congress sorts out the details about where to allocate discretionary funding, the smaller portion of the budget not tied to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

But the bill Democrats unveiled late Tuesday would last for the remaining eight months of the year, and stretches 137 pages.

Leaders of the House Appropriations Committee clashed on the House floor Tuesday when ranking Republican Jerry Lewis of California argued the country would be better served by renewing the continuing resolution Congress passed in December. That measure "contained no gimmicks, no policy changes, and did not reward or punish agencies indiscriminately," he said.

"This omnibus spending bill before us today totally disregards the once-proud tradition of regular order within the House Appropriations Committee and violates the long-standing bipartisan customs of the people's house," said Lewis, using the word "omnibus" to describe bulky funding proposals that link appropriations for several disparate agencies into one large bill.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey responded to Lewis by saying Bush's impending proposal, which is scheduled for release Monday, requires the House to act quickly. He added that Republicans were invited to participate throughout the negotiating process and had plenty of time to make suggestions.

"It would be kind of nice if we had disposed of [President Bush's] last year's budget request before the president brings his new budget forward, because I believe that he's entitled to start with a clean slate," Obey, D-Wis., said. "We are now in a situation in which we have to move on. We may have made the wrong choices, but at least in contrast to last year, we made those choices."

According to a statement put out by Democrats, the bill would cut spending in more than 60 programs to below levels from the previous year, but would increase spending in select areas by $14.1 billion. The plan also would raise the Federal Highway Administration's debt limit by $3.5 billion.

The areas where funding is increased include health care spending for military and veterans, by $4.8 billion and the FBI by $216 million. The Department of Education would get an additional $614 million to broaden the Pell Grant student aid program and $500 million would go to the Department of Energy for renewable energy research.

Republicans led a charge Wednesday afternoon to gum up the process with a number of procedural votes, including one over the question of earmarks, or special projects for home states. Others lawmakers sought to impose a budget freeze, which they said would save about $6 billion.

As for Republican spending priorities, Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., pushed unsuccessfully for $3.3 billion in additional spending for farm disaster aid. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., said a $545 million cut to NASA would jeopardize the agency's plans for astronauts to return to the moon and possibly travel to Mars.

House Minority Leader John Boehner's office issued a statement saying the budget plan goes wrong by cutting Drug Enforcement Agency funds that will result in 165 fewer agents and hurts military families by slashing $3.1 billion in military base realignment funds.

The Ohio Republican's office also said the plan provided $650 million less for Iraq reconstruction than called for by the president and $50 million less for operations in Afghanistan.

But the spending proposal did please a number of advocacy groups.

The Save Darfur Coalition said the bill would provide $50 million in assistance for peacekeeping efforts in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. The group said if signed into law, the money would help pay for another 18,000 U.N. security force personnel to assist in peacekeeping efforts there.

"The House of Representatives stood up for the people of Darfur today," the group's executive director, David Rubenstein, said in a release Wednesday.

The Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities, a subgroup of the Democratic-leaning organization USAction, praised the bill's sponsors for "efforts to stop the hemorrhaging inflicted by the 109th Congress in its failure to fulfill the fundamental responsibility of passing a budget." ECAP called on Congress to look to the 2008 fiscal year to boost food stamp money, children's programs and unemployment insurance.

The group also called on Congress to "reject new tax breaks for the wealthy and special interests."

Steve Ellis, vice president for programs for the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the way Democrats are pushing through the 2007 budget bill is not pretty, but other options — like a 1,000 page omnibus budget package — are worse.

"Believe me, nothing good ever comes out of an omnibus," Ellis said.

"This was going to be messy no matter what they did," Ellis said, calling this package "the final, bitter results of a bad spending process for fiscal year 2007."

But he added that he's never seen hybrid budget bill like the one being pushed by Democrats. While it aims to remove earmarks, they may remain because the bill essentially continues funding authorized in legislation passed a year ago. That budget contained an estimated 13,000 earmarks, according to the Congressional Research Service.

FOX News' Greg Simmons and Jim Mills and The Associated Press contributed to this report.