December 12, 2011 in Nation/World

$1 trillion-plus spending bill taking shape in Congress

Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON — Weary after a year of partisan bickering, lawmakers reached a tentative agreement today on a sprawling $1 trillion-plus spending bill that chips away at military and environmental spending but denies conservatives many of the policy changes they wanted on social issues, government regulations and health care.

Environmentalists succeeded in stopping industry forces from blocking new clean air regulations and a new clean water regulation opposed by mountaintop removal mining interests. But anti-Castro lawmakers appeared likely to win concessions that would weaken administration efforts to ease restrictions on Cuban immigrants on travel to the island and sending cash back to family members there.

On spending, the measure implements this summer’s hard-fought budget pact between President Barack Obama and Republican leaders. That deal essentially freezes agency budgets, on average, at levels for the recently-completed budget year that were approved back in April.

Drafted behind closed doors, the proposed bill would pay for the war in Afghanistan but give the Pentagon just a 1 percent boost in annual spending, while the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget would be cut by 3.5 percent.

The bill also covers everything from money to combat AIDS and famine in Africa, patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, operations of national parks, and budget increases for veterans’ health care.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said that bargainers had struck an agreement but would not formally unveil it until Tuesday. A House vote is expected Thursday and the Senate is likely to follow in time to meet a midnight Friday deadline before a stopgap funding measure expires.

The generally smooth, businesslike negotiations on the omnibus spending bill contrasts with the ongoing partisan brawl over Obama’s demand that Congress extend jobless benefits and a cut in the Social Security payroll tax. The House is slated to vote on a GOP-friendly version of the payroll tax cut Tuesday; negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate on a compromise measure have yet to begin.

The delay into Tuesday on the spending measure stemmed in large part from displeasure on the part of Senate Democratic leaders upset about the hard line taken by Republicans on the payroll tax cut measure. Democrats are seeking to ensure that both the spending measure and the payroll tax bill pass before Congress adjourns for the year.

“They’re connected politically. We need to do it all before we go home,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The spending measure, meanwhile, is likely to go over like a lead balloon among tea party conservatives, many of whom believe the August budget and debt compromise didn’t cut enough. Last month, 101 House Republicans opposed a smaller bundle of spending bills.

Conservative ire is likely to be magnified once the negotiating outcome regarding dozens of GOP policy “riders” is finalized. House Republicans larded the measures with provisions aimed at rolling back Environmental Protection Agency rules, such as regulations on coal ash, large-scale discharges of hot water and greenhouse gases from electric power plants, and emissions from cement plants and oil refineries.

The most controversial riders, lawmakers said, were dumped overboard due to opposition from Obama and Democrats controlling the Senate. But Democrats realize that they have to show some flexibility to win GOP votes in the House. That means Democrats are likely to accept, reluctantly, a rider that blocks the city of Washington, D.C., from funding abortions for poor women.

“We’ll get dozens of riders for industries and the social conservatives,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee.

In addition to the cut in EPA funding, foreign aid spending also would drop and House lawmakers would absorb a 6 percent cut to their office budgets.

Rogers was pushing until the end to block clean water rules opposed by mining companies that blast the tops off mountains, to no avail. Top Appropriations Committee Democrat Norm Dicks of Washington, when asked if the mountaintop mining rider was still a concern, quipped, “It would be if it were in” the final legislation.

Dicks also predicted failure for several GOP attempts to block the EPA’s authority to issue greenhouse gas regulations and new limits on hazardous emissions under the Clean Air Act.

“We’re pretty good on that,” Dicks said. He said that a few issues still need to be resolved.

House GOP leaders pressed riders to block the Obama administration’s 2009 policy lifting restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to families remaining in Cuba, and some Democrats backing the administration policy seemed resigned to defeat.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., abandoned efforts to require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue tough new rules on window blind cords that can strangle children and tiny but powerful batteries that can harm small children if ingested.

On spending, the measure generally consists of relatively small adjustments to thousands of individual programs. Agencies like the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement will get a boost within the Department of Homeland Security, while GOP defense hawks won additional funding to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. The troubled, over-budget next generation F-35 fighter plane program would be largely protected.

Democrats won a modest increase in funding for schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students.

To placate conservatives, money for disasters will be addressed in a separate bill, though on a parallel track as the omnibus measure. At issue is billions of dollars for disaster aid that would be on top of the $1.043 trillion cap set in August.

It’s a sticky issue for conservatives because approving the disaster aid would bring the total amount of money allotted for agency budgets above last year’s budget. By putting the aid in a separate bill, the GOP can lean heavily on Democrats to pass it.

“Americans will receive the disaster aid that they are entitled to,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., chairwoman of the panel responsible for homeland security. She said she dropped a proposal to increase Transportation Security Administration per-ticket security fees to $4 per leg for a maximum of $16 per round trip that would have been used to raise money to finance TSA operations.

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