All voices heard as House brainstorms for budget trims

By Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 12:03 AM

As the House explores ways this week to trim federal spending beyond the $61 billion in cuts that Republicans have already proposed, Speaker John A. Boehner has said all ideas are welcome - from obscure trims involving mustang roundups out West to major reductions such as eliminating funding for the Iraq security forces.

But such a free-for-all can have surprising results, and one of the biggest Wednesday was a victory for President Obama and a defeat for a Boehner-backed initiative.

Many tea-party-backed freshmen broke ranks with their GOP leaders and joined liberal Democrats in voting to cut funding for an alternative engine for a fighter jet. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine project has long been a frequent but elusive target, as well as one that provided jobs in Boehner's home state of Ohio.

In trying to pass a bill that would fund the federal government through September, Boehner has kept a campaign promise to give everyone a voice in the process. But the engine vote showed that no one can quite predict how it will turn out.

That didn't seem to bother some House Republicans, though. Rep. Steve King (Iowa) said the debate has been so intense because Republicans and Democrats have "years of pent-up frustrations" after floor amendments were previously not allowed for such spending bills.

"This constitutional, republican form of government is messy and debate is messy, but I think it's so important that for the first time in how many years now members can actually take their argument to the floor, have a debate, force a recorded vote on their issue," King said.

The discussion about amendments comes as the House finishes its work on the bill that's necessary to keep the government running beyond early March.

House leaders scheduled a final vote on the measure for Thursday afternoon but warned that lengthy debate on amendments could delay that plan.

The Senate is expected to take up the legislation after it returns from its recess at the end of the month, but the measure is considered unlikely to pass that chamber.

The Obama and George W. Bush administrations sought to cancel the alternate-engine program as a symbol of wasteful spending, but their efforts failed in Congress. Last May, despite Obama's opposition, the Democratic-controlled House voted to keep the project alive.

General Electric and Rolls-Royce - which are building the engine, and have spent about $3 billion on it so far and need perhaps several billion dollars more to complete it - had spread the work to many states.

But the contractors' lobbying efforts proved unsuccessful this time. On Wednesday, 110 Republicans joined 123 Democrats in voting to cancel the engine.

Even among their leaders, Republicans were split. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) voted to keep the funding. Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) and two leaders of the freshman class, Reps. Kristi Noem (S.D.) and Tim Scott (S.C.), voted to eliminate it. Boehner, in keeping with House tradition, did not vote.

"I commend Boehner and the Republicans for attempting to do what they said they would strive to do in keeping an open process, but it doesn't always pan out the way" they want, said Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said Republicans have voted for deep cuts to many specific programs and "they're going to have to answer" for them in their reelection campaigns. "It's a terrible bill," he said. "There's no way to make it - even with lipstick - any better."

The engine amendment was one of hundreds proposed this week. As of late Wednesday night, 46 amendments had been considered on the House floor. In some cases, the amendments proposed actual cuts, trimming a total of $506 million from federal programs; in others, they would move money from one program to another.

For instance, the House passed two Democratic-sponsored amendments that would restore funding to local programs for firefighters and police officers. The first, sponsored by Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.), would steer nearly $300 million from NASA's budget to the COPS community policing program. When Weiner's bill was called for a two-minute vote, the nays piled up at first, but then the yeas trickled in - 207 . . . 211 . . . 217. And then the final tally of 228 to 203.

Another amendment, offered by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), would take $510 million from Department of Homeland Security research and development and put it toward programs that help communities hire police officers and firefighters and buy equipment. That amendment passed, 317 to 113.

These were two in a series of more than a dozen votes that came every two minutes on Wednesday afternoon.

The votes came so quickly that some lawmakers appeared confused; many arched their necks to see the lighted board of votes - perhaps to find out how certain colleagues voted.

Lawmakers debated a proposal by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) to cut $2 million from the Bureau of Land Management's budget in protest of an agency program that rounds up wild mustangs on public land in the West and holds them in pens.

Burton said that the program is too costly and that he wants the horses treated more humanely.

But Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) rose in opposition, saying the horses overpopulate many areas of her state and damage the rangeland.

"When the gentle people east of the Mississippi will take these wild horses into their back yards, I will support this amendment," she said.

Burton's amendment passed on a voice vote.

By late Wednesday, hundreds of amendments were still waiting to be heard, including some of the more trivial. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), for example, introduced proposals to eliminate funding for government studies on how well men use condoms and how menopausal women turn to yoga to prevent hot flashes.

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