Senate Appropriations Panel Quickly Approves Four Bills
Friday, July 21, 2006
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved four bills yesterday, marking the first time in 18 years that the panel has finished its work before the August recess, and leaving plenty of time for Congress to complete a budget by Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
Despite that momentum, Congress probably will not confront some of the biggest domestic spending issues, including more money for education and health programs, until after the November elections.
Nervous Republican leaders want to avoid a showdown before then between GOP moderates and conservatives. Moderates are seeking more money for health and education programs, while conservatives favor belt-tightening and want to rid the appropriations process of earmarks -- special projects that lawmakers like to insert in spending bills to benefit their home districts. To bolster funding for social programs, the Senate bill reduced President Bush's Pentagon spending request by about $9 billion.
Lawmakers in both parties now say the spending bills may be rolled into one big package after the midterm elections. The most contentious of the bills, and a perennial spending choke point, would fund the departments of Health and Human Services, Education and Labor. In the House, Democrats tacked on a minimum-wage increase, a poison pill for GOP leaders, who oppose a wage increase but worry that political pressures would leave vulnerable rank-and-file Republicans with little choice but to support it.
House leaders have considered offering a separate bill on the minimum wage, possibly by pairing it with small-business tax incentives to offset the extra labor costs. Republican moderates are particularly eager to vote on a wage increase. But action is unlikely until at least September, when the House will be in session for four weeks, before adjourning Sept. 29, at least until after the elections.
In the Senate, there is bipartisan pressure to increase funding for popular social programs. In fact, the bill's Republican author, Arlen Specter (Pa.), is one of its most outspoken critics, for shortchanging job training programs, disease research and Pell grants, which have not increased in five years, despite soaring college costs. Specter said his bill represents "the disintegration of the appropriate federal role in health, education and worker safety."
At $142.8 billion, the health-education-labor package is $5 billion over Bush's $137.8 billion request, but $2 billion short of the funding level that Specter sought and that the Senate endorsed in a vote earlier this year.
Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), the ranking Democrat on Specter's subcommittee, noted that funding for Bush's No Child Left Behind education initiative falls about $15 billion short of the level that was promised when Congress approved it. "That says why so many people are upset with No Child Left Behind around the country," Harkin said. When the bill finally does advance, he added, "we're going to try our best" to fill the numerous spending gaps.
One of the few changes to the bill the committee approved would encourage the Education Department to support a campaign to teach the national anthem to schoolchildren, which features the Oak Ridge Boys as "official musical ambassadors."
The Senate panel also approved a $69 billion package for the transportation, housing and Treasury departments that would provide $1.4 billion for Amtrak, or about $500 million more than what the White House proposed. Another flashpoint is public housing funding, which has remained mostly flat in recent years. The Senate bill would provide the Department of Housing and Urban Development with $36.6 billion, an increase of $2.5 billion from Bush's budget request.
One amendment the committee accepted would block the administration from implementing a rule giving foreign investors a bigger role in U.S. airlines, in accordance with a European Union aviation agreement. The rule is set to take effect Oct. 1 -- well before final action is expected on the transportation bill, meaning its opponents may have to find a quicker-moving vehicle.
The Senate committee also approved a defense spending bill that would provide $453.5 billion in new discretionary spending authority, including $50 billion in additional funding for operations related to the war on terrorism. The committee bill recommended about $9 billion below Bush's fiscal 2007 request of $462.6 billion.
The defense bill is one of the few spending measures that the Senate hopes to push through before the elections. For now, leadership plans to bring it to the floor July 31, the final week before the August recess. But Democrats have warned that they intend to offer numerous amendments, many of them related to the Iraq war. A senior Senate GOP aide said last night that floor consideration could be put off until September, depending on the length and volatility of the Democratic list.
Finally, the Senate committee approved fiscal 2007 funding for military construction and veterans affairs. The bill totaled $81 billion, slightly less than the $81.7 billion Bush requested, and about $5 billion more than the fiscal 2006 level.