WASHINGTON – Conservative House Republicans are again going after President Barack Obama's budget to regulate Wall Street, build rural water projects and send food aid overseas as the latest in a series of spending bills get under way.
Clean energy programs unpopular with Republicans also take a hit in a bill funding the Energy Department and water projects that passed the House on Wednesday on a 255-165 vote. The House promptly turned to a bipartisan, $39 billion measure funding the Homeland Security Department.
But even as the GOP spending bills often cut well below current spending and far below Obama's requests, Republicans drafting the measures are displaying a more pragmatic side on some programs.
For instance, the Amtrak passenger railroad, long a target of senior Republicans, would actually get a budget boost under a just-released transportation bill. Community development block grants popular with local officials back in lawmakers' districts would get a $400 million, 14 percent increase over current levels. And Republicans are largely sparing housing vouchers for the poor and food aid for pregnant women from cuts as they pass agency operating budgets for the fiscal year that starts in October.
At issue are the 12 annual spending bills that set the day-to-day budgets of federal agencies. Republicans controlling the House have already sparred two hard-fought appropriations rounds with Obama and have embarked on another battle this year as well, despite last year's budget and debt deal that set overall spending levels for the current crop of bills.
But House GOP leaders are breaking with the $1.047 trillion 2013 spending cap set last year and are instead pressing ahead with bills totaling $19 billion less — while further breaking the budget deal with an $8 billion shift from nondefense appropriations to the Pentagon.
The GOP move has led the White House to issue a blanket veto threat against every spending bill until Republicans reverse themselves, making it unlikely that any of the 12 spending bills will become law before Election Day, much less the Oct. 1 start of the budget year.
In allocating the cuts, top Republicans are doing what they can to cultivate good will from Democrats — and protect programs that have long enjoyed bipartisan support. For instance, the homeland security measure contains $5.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's chief disaster relief account, a move originally opposed by conservatives like Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. A fund that subsidizes community development financial institutions providing credit to underserved rural and urban areas would receive Obama's full $221 million request.
Meanwhile, the energy and water measure seeks to keep open the possibility that the mothballed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada might eventually open despite the opposition of Obama and powerful Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Democrats such as Norm Dicks of Washington and Peter Visclosky of Indiana support the move.
Democrats had few complaints about either the energy and water measure or homeland security measures. A measure funding the Veterans Administration won a sweeping vote last week.
And in a surprise, Republicans would award a $384 million increase that boosts Amtrak's funding to $1.8 billion. Included is a new $500 million bridge and tunnel repair program. Amtrak operating subsidies would be cut more modestly than has been tried in recent years, from Obama's $466 million request to $350 million.
"I do appreciate ... an effort to protect several important transportation and low-income housing programs," Dicks said.
Under measures approved by appropriations subcommittees Wednesday, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — charged with carrying out new regulations on the freewheeling derivatives market — would absorb a 41 percent cut from Obama's request. The Securities and Exchange Commission, however, would receive a small $50 million increase over current levels.
Democrats also blasted a move to cut renewable energy programs $886 million below Obama's request and a move to eliminate Obama's $150 million request for rebuilding blighted housing projects.