Senate spending bill would spare D.C. region from House cuts

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 4:50 PM

Senate Democrats unveiled a seven-month spending bill Friday that spares the Washington region from most of the cuts that a more austere House bill would impose.

The Senate measure, which the chamber will consider next week to fund the government through Sept. 30, fully pays the federal government's $150 million contribution to Metro's capital budget. That line item is a top priority for Virginia and Maryland's senators, given that the House bill would eliminate the contribution. The federal share is meant to be matched by $50 million apiece by Maryland, Virginia and the District.

While the House bill would imperil transit security grants that have benefited Metro as well as MARC trains and Alexandria city buses, the Senate measure would leave that money intact.

The Senate bill would cut federal funding for the District court system by $10 million, compared to the $25 million cut the House bill would impose. Beyond that, the Senate bill largely leaves payments to the District at their current levels, while the House measure would slice nearly $80 million overall.

The Senate measure also does not feature the controversial "riders" that were written into the House bill, including prohibitions on the District using its own money to pay for needle-exchange programs and abortions for low-income women.

And the Senate bill does not have funding to extend the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides low-income students with federal money to pay for private school tuition. Democrats moved to end the program in 2009, allowing only current recipients to continue. But Republicans -- led by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) - and some Democrats have sought to revive the scholarships, and the House spending bill includes money to keep them going.

Also of local interest: While the House measure includes language blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing its plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the Senate bill does not.

Once the Senate approves its version of the spending resolution, the two chambers will have to work out a compromise with President Obama. Area senators have said they will put up an especially strong fight for the Metro funding, and they got a boost in that department this week from Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R).

In a letter to the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee dated March 1, McDonnell wrote that he supported "full ongoing federal funding" for the Metro system, even though he agrees with his fellow Republicans' desire to attack the budget deficit.

"I fully support your bold efforts, and that of your colleagues, to dramatically reduce the unsustainable level of debt and deficit spending in Washington," McDonnell wrote. "We have made those tough but necessary choices in Virginia, having pared back spending to 2006 levels. Yet, infrastructure and development and maintenance is critical to our ability to create jobs and opportunity, and I hope you will sustain this funding."

Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), who led a failed effort on the House floor to reverse his chamber's Metro cuts, has been asking McDonnell for more than two weeks for such a letter.

"I welcome the governor's letter and I thank him for his leadership," Connolly said Friday, though he added "it would have been nice to have his public support" back when the House debate was ongoing.

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