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Congress Agrees on Tight Budget for U.S.

In a move that underscored the extensive influence of the federal workforce in almost every congressional district, Congress rejected White House objections to a 3.5 percent pay increase for civilian government employees, starting in January.

Despite the spending cap, lawmakers found ways to earmark funds for thousands of highway, bridge, water and research projects in the home states and congressional districts of influential senators and House members.

The Missouri Pork Producers Federation came away with $1 million to develop technology that would improve the environment by converting animal waste into energy. The Big Sandy Airport in Kentucky got $150,000 for "fencing," and $25,000 went for the study of mariachi music in the Clark County, Nev., school district. Airport terminal improvements were approved for Juneau, Alaska, Stevens's home state.

But across much of the rest of the domestic budget, the tight spending ceiling was apparent. Subsidies in the main Small Business Administration loan program were jettisoned, and the administration's request for funds to prepare a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was slashed by $303 million. The Environmental Protection Agency suffered a cutback of $612 million and, within its accounts, federal aid to rural communities and Indian tribes for water and sewer improvements -- favorite vehicles for congressional earmarks and patronage -- was slashed by $518 million.

To provide more funds for congressional and White House priorities, such as NASA and veterans health programs, negotiators used a combination of accounting gimmicks and a four-fifths of 1 percent tax on all other programs to produce the necessary funds.

Both the White House and GOP leaders said the spending bill is a victory in the battle to get the federal budget back into balance, but Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a fiscal watchdog group, was skeptical.

"The big money isn't in this part of the budget," he said, noting that domestic discretionary spending makes up barely one-seventh of the total federal budget of $2.3 trillion. The soaring cost of entitlement programs, such as farm subsidies and Medicare, remains largely unaddressed, Bixby said. "They're chasing after the weeds in the lawn while the house is burning down."

Democrats, meanwhile, charged that the package is laden with favors to business and social conservatives, groups that were key to Republican electoral victories on Nov. 2.

Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, cited provisions limiting review of timber sales in Alaska, removing wilderness designations in various parts of Georgia, and extending grazing permits without requiring environmental reviews.

Abortion rights forces appeared to have been caught by surprise late last week when negotiators accepted the House-backed provision on abortion services. Abortion rights advocates lacked the votes to challenge it in the House and expected Senate negotiators to object to its inclusion in the final omnibus spending package.

That calculation, however, did not reckon with the fact that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a principal negotiator on health issues, would become a target of antiabortion forces as a result of his recent remarks questioning whether an antiabortion nominee would be confirmed for the Supreme Court by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sources said yesterday that although Specter objected to the provision during bargaining on the bill, he was forced to spend much of last week reassuring conservatives that he would push President Bush's nominees for the court, regardless of their position on abortion, if he were chosen chairman of the committee.

Others suggested, however, that the provision's inclusion reflected the strength and increased aggressiveness of GOP social conservatives after the election.

Since the mid-1990s, federal law has provided "conscience protection" for medical students who do not want to undergo training for abortions. The new proposal would expand such protection from medical training facilities to nearly all providers of health care.

While all states would be affected in varying degrees by the proposal, the major impact would fall on the 22 or 23 states that use their own money to provide abortion services to recipients of Medicaid, the federal-state program of health care for low-income Americans. In the future, they would not be able to force health care providers to continue providing abortions or abortion referrals.

According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 15 states -- others say as many as 17 -- use state funds to cover abortion costs for Medicaid recipients. Another seven states, including Maryland and Virginia, cover costs in some cases, the group said.

The new provision would also make it easier for health care providers to deny Medicaid-funded abortions in rape or incest cases and for federally funded family planning clinics to drop abortion services, according to critics of the provision.

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