The Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee, restraining its spending appetites to avoid a veto, yesterday approved a $4.6 billion jobs and recession-relief program that has already won President Reagan's qualified approval.
The recession aid plan, attached to "must" legislation providing $5 billion to continue payment of unemployment benefits, was approved by voice vote despite scathing criticism from the committee's ranking Republican and one of its most outspoken liberal Democratic members.
Backers of the plan conceded that it would hardly make a dent in the 10.4 percent unemployment rate, but argued that it would provide 300,000 to 600,000 jobs along with food, shelter and other humanitarian aid for hundreds of thousands of jobless workers. They also said it was the best that Congress could get from Reagan.
"Let's don't give them an excuse for a veto," said committee Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.).
But Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) called the jobs proposal "rotten" and "lousy," among other things. "This is a piece of paper with pet projects for everybody with an 'in' . . . . This is not a jobs bill. It's a catch-all bill," he charged.
"Both sides ought to be ashamed of themselves," he added, heaping scorn on the Democrats for writing it and on Reagan for saying on Thursday that he could readily accept most of it.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who failed in an attempt to add $445 million for health services and cut a corresponding amount from water projects and similar programs, said it was "disgraceful we can't squeeze $400 million out of brick and mortar and put $400 million into flesh and blood."
Obey said Reagan "wants to give the impression he's doing something by doing as little as possible" and has "put the Democratic Party in the position where we have to be enforcers of his numbers or we get nothing."
Although House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and other party leaders have said the bill will be followed by more comprehensive jobs legislation later this spring, Obey said he was "terribly skeptical" that anything else would escape a veto. This, he said, "is the only turkey you've got to ride."
While rejecting all proposed add-ons, the committee agreed to target $250 million of $1.25 billion for community development grants to areas of heaviest unemployment and removed a 10 percent limit on the amount of grants that can be used for public service jobs. Women's groups had been lobbying for the public service jobs expansion to provide more employment for women.
The development grants, which finance construction projects, were the largest item in the package. Most of the rest would go for smaller endeavors, ranging from small business loans, prison repair work and park maintenance to food and shelter for the destitute, maternal and child health services and day-care programs.
A relatively small allocation of $500,000 would go to the administration to plan "a Reconstruction Finance Corp.-type" program to help finance basic industries, along with loan programs for housing and farms.
The $4.6 billion total is larger than the $4.3 billion recommended earlier by Reagan and does not count some big items that the president did, such as $500 million for highways and $244 million for urban development grants that Congress had already approved.
In his qualified endorsement of the package Thursday, Reagan called on Congress to bring the plan more in line with his proposal, presumably anticipating some corrective surgery by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Like the jobs bill proposed by the Democrats late last year, the bill includes many projects favored by powerful committee leaders, especially Whitten, who represents a rural Mississippi district that would benefit from sewer and water grants, soil conservation programs and water projects included in the bill. As Obey zeroed in on $200 million for water and sewer grants, Whitten became so upset he said he'd never heard of an "idea more stupid," an uncharacteristic outburst for which he later apologized.
As Conte was twitting Whitten for inclusion of $33 million for a highway demonstration program, for which Whitten's district is expected to be a prime candidate, Whitten turned the tables on his Republican colleague. "You've got a similar one in your district," he observed. "That's money for Amtrak on the Cape Cape Cod ," said Conte. "You requested it," retorted Whitten.
The measure is expected to win easy passage by the House on Wednesday, and Senate approval with some modifications is expected in time to meet a mid-March deadline for replenishment of unemployment benefit coffers, which have been drained by the recession.
Reagan has pointedly avoided veto threats in hopes of keeping the measure within a bipartisan framework, and House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) said, "I can't imagine the president not signing a bill when he gets 75 percent of what he wants."