Democrats Move Leftover Spending Measure

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

House and Senate Democratic leaders agreed yesterday to a $463 billion spending plan for the remainder of the fiscal year that would freeze many federal agencies at 2006 levels but include more money for veterans' health, education, scientific research, HIV programs and public parks, among other things.

In an unusual move, the congressional leaders stripped the spending bill of all earmarks, or narrow, special-interest provisions. The measure had to be cobbled together now because Congress did not finish its work last year and failed to pass nine of 11 spending bills.

Four months into the current fiscal year, the federal government has been running on a temporary budget that is set to expire Feb. 15. The House is scheduled to vote on the spending package today, while the Senate will take it up in the coming weeks.

A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee said enough additional money will be provided to the Social Security Administration and other agencies that none will have to furlough employees, close offices or take other such measures as a result of a budget crunch. She also said that federal employees will see a 2.2 percent pay increase set by President Bush.

Among the priorities for the District that are preserved in the plan is a $20 million upgrade to the Navy Yard Metro station near the new Nationals baseball stadium, officials said.

Republicans grumbled about the fact that Democrats in the House will not allow amendments to the budget and said the party in power plans to ram through a spending bill without committee hearings or meaningful debate. Democrats said that they have no choice, because the previous Congress left the budget process in such disarray that they are under great pressure to quickly pass a spending bill for the remaining eight months.

"I don't expect people to love this proposal. I don't love this proposal and we probably have made some wrong choices," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "But in contrast to last year's Congress, which decided to duck these choices, at least we have made them in order to bring last year's issues to a conclusion so we can turn the page and deal with next year's priorities."

Both Republican and Democratic budget analysts said that the bill is not the ideal way to fund the federal government but that it is pragmatic. "If your strategy is to get it out of here and move it on, fine, this works," said Jim Dyer, a former Republican staff director for the Appropriations Committee.

By declaring a one-time moratorium on earmarks, the Democratic leaders are granting the Bush administration more leeway in spending. The Army Corps of Engineers construction budget, for instance, typically outlines funding for specific projects. But under the no-earmarks pledge, Obey and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) decided that Congress cannot spell out spending, so they opted to give a lump sum of $2.3 billion to the Army Corps -- about $38 million less than it received in 2006 -- and to allow the agency to decide which projects deserve the money.

"They really delivered on their promise to wipe out earmarks," said Richard Kogan, a federal budget expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Among the winners in the bill are veterans' health, which will get $23.3 billion, or $3.6 billion more than it got last year. The Defense Department will receive $21.2 billion -- an increase of $1.2 billion -- to treat U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The FBI will get $6 billion, an increase of $216.6 million to fully fund 31,359 positions, including those of 12,213 agents and 2,577 intelligence analysts.

Other programs that will see a boost include those that Democrats complained were underfunded when Republicans ran Congress.

Pell grants, the federal stipends for low- and middle-income college students, will be increased by $615.4 million, to a total of $13.6 billion. That will allow the maximum Pell grant to rise $260 to $4,310, the first increase in four years.

Head Start, the early childhood program for low-income students, will get $6.9 billion, an increase of $103.7 million. Democrats say that Head Start funding has been cut by 11 percent since 2002 and that centers nationwide have reduced hours, transportation and instruction as a result.

The National Institutes of Health will receive $28.9 billion, an increase of $619.5 million, which Democrats say will pay for an additional 500 research grants. The National Science Foundation will get $4.7 billion, an increase of $335 million for research.

When it comes to housing, the Democrats' bill would allot $15.9 billion, an increase of $502 million, to renew 70,000 housing vouchers under the Section 8 program, which provides federal housing subsidies to low-income families and individuals. It would provide $5.9 billion, an increase of $939 million, to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to renew subsidies for 157,000 housing units.

Before adjourning last year, Congress ratified money for defense and homeland security but left the rest of the federal budget -- including Social Security, Medicare, veterans programs, education and transportation -- in limbo. Most of the government has been operating at 2006 levels through a series of stopgap measures.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company