House Bill Draws Criticism From GOP

Boehner: To suggest ending vouchers is an
Boehner: To suggest ending vouchers is an "abomination." (Lauren Victoria Burke - AP)
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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

The House yesterday passed a $410 billion bill to fund government operations through September, brushing aside Republican complaints that the measure included too much unnecessary spending and could lead to the end of a school voucher program for Washington.

Republicans sharply attacked the bill, which passed on a party-line vote, because it contains thousands of earmarks, which target funds to specific projects in congressional districts. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks federal spending, said the bill included more than 8,000 earmarks, such as $22 million requested by several Massachusetts lawmakers for an addition to the John F. Kennedy presidential library. The earmarks cost almost $7.7 billion, the group said.

In a meeting with Democratic congressional leaders at the White House, President Obama, who had pledged to limit such spending in his campaign, also raised concerns about the earmarks in the bill. According to sources, several of the Democratic leaders defended the earmarking process, saying it was better for members of Congress to pick projects in their districts than to leave to federal agencies the task of developing them.

The legislation, which is expected to pass the Senate and be signed into law in the next few weeks, would fund the D.C. voucher program for the 2009-2010 school year, but Congress would have to pass a separate bill to keep the program going after that.

Attached to the legislation is a statement written by House Appropriations Committee that directs Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. public schools, to "promptly take steps to minimize potential disruption" because of possible changes to the voucher program, which provides as much as $7,500 for almost 2,000 D.C. students to attend private schools.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Democrats had not yet decided to end the voucher program, saying: "We'll take a look at it." But Republicans complained that Democrats were looking to end a prized initiative of President George W. Bush that they have long opposed.

"Some of the worst schools in America are actually right here in the District of Columbia," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "And for those parents who have taken advantage of this program and allowed their children to go to real schools, schools where they're cared for, schools where they get an education, to suggest that we ought to eliminate this program is an abomination."

The bill also made changes in the U.S. policy toward Cuba, making it easier for Cuban Americans to visit relatives who live in the communist country. The Senate may not agree to the changes.

But most of the Republican opposition centered on the spending priorities in the bill.

Last fall, Bush and congressional Democrats reached an agreement on 2009 spending for defense and homeland security but could not agree how much should be spent on other programs, and opted to pass a temporary resolution to keep funding those programs at existing levels. That resolution expires March 6.

With expanded Democratic majorities in Congress and Obama's election, the bill passed by the House Democrats yesterday includes an 8 percent increase in overall funding and huge increases in some programs, such as $668 million in new funding for low-income housing for the elderly and $165 million for Amtrak.

Republicans, already frustrated about an economic stimulus bill that passed this month and will cost almost $800 billion, said Democrats are simply continuing a reckless spending spree.

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