House spares Pentagon, homeland security from cuts

Republicans controlling the House are sparing the Pentagon, military veterans and most homeland security programs from the budget knife as action begins on a set of spending bills setting the day-to-day budgets for federal agencies.

Foreign aid programs would absorb a 5 percent cut in legislation released Tuesday, while the FBI would receive a 2 percent budget hike in a separate measure.

At issue is much of the nuts-and-bolts work of Congress, going line by line through the agency budgets funded each year through 12 appropriations bills. Democrats will support several of the early bills, but the Obama administration has already promised to veto the measures because Republicans are cutting domestic programs below levels agreed to in last summer's budget pact.

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., is frontloading the process with legislation backed by Democrats, including measures funding the departments of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and Defense.

Democrats spoke glowingly of a $72 billion veterans and military construction measure approved by an Appropriations subpanel by voice vote and also backed a $600 billion-plus measure funding the Pentagon and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But they criticized a $48 billion measure funding foreign aid and the State Department. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said the measure "underfunds our nation's diplomatic efforts" and is packed with controversial policy prescriptions, including a move to stop U.S. contributions to United Nations population control efforts. Dicks says that when overseas anti-terror efforts are added to the tally, the cuts to foreign aid total 9 percent.

Dicks, the top Democrat on the Appropriations panel, is a key figure because it's commonly assumed that Democratic votes will be needed to pass the measures. Some GOP conservatives simply refuse to vote for any spending measure. For instance, conservatives are likely to protest more than $5 billion in disaster aid added in accordance with last summer's budget pact but not accounted for in the GOP budget plan that passed in March, which is likely to cost the homeland security measure support when it comes to the floor.

On Tuesday, the House turned to a measure funding the Commerce and Justice departments and science efforts such as the space program. The $51 billion measure generally matches President Barack Obama's requests for agencies like the FBI and NASA but cuts legal aid for the poor and grants to local governments for hiring police officers.

Amendments to add money for a program combating domestic violence and restoring a cut to grants to local police departments passed the House easily Tuesday evening, reflecting the political appeal of such programs. An amendment to restore more than $130 million in grants for hiring police squeaked by on a 206-204 vote.

Veterans programs would receive a 4 percent budget boost provided by cuts to construction efforts on military bases, but Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, warned that tightening budget caps will mean "really, really tough, brutal decisions in future years."

The Pentagon measure would boost military spending by $3 billion above Obama's request for core defense programs and match his $89 billion request for overseas military operations, which reflects a $27 billion cut from current levels. It also would fund a 1.7 percent pay hike for the military.

Senate leaders promise to try to revive the moribund appropriations process in that chamber, but it's unclear how many of the 12 annual spending bills will see floor votes.