A House panel voted unanimously yesterday to slash a number of signature Bush administration domestic initiatives by $750 million, sending a signal that Congress intends to make the White House share the pain of belt tightening.
Among the spending rejected by a Republican-led House Appropriations subcommittee was $18 million for the "American Masterpieces" program, which has been championed by Laura Bush; $23 million for the "We the People" civics and history program, which was announced by President Bush at a White House ceremony, and $219 million for "FutureGen," a special initiative of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to develop a nonpolluting coal-fired power plant.
The action marked the beginning of what is expected to be months of contention over the 13 annual bills that allocate funds for government departments and agencies starting Oct. 1. Overall, the panel reduced funding for the natural resources bill from $20 billion this year to $19.7 billion in 2005. The elimination of the Bush initiatives, Republicans said, was necessary to accommodate a long list of congressional priorities, including more money for maintaining national parks, fighting disease in forests, improving Indian health services and providing more funds to fight forest fires in the West.
In a blistering speech, the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), said the panel's denial of a lengthy list of pet administration projects was a lesson in "reality." He suggested that the administration knew when it announced the initiatives that funding would not be available.
The writing of the spending bills this year has been complicated by the inability of the Republican-controlled House and Senate to reach final agreement on a budget. The House set an $821 billion limit on the 13 appropriations bills, $1.6 billion less than requested by the White House.
Final action on the allotment for the spending bills has been thwarted in the Senate by delays in final action on the 2005 budget.
After years of increases for education, basic scientific research, health research, land conservation and other priorities, domestic spending is now being squeezed by the explosive growth of spending on defense and homeland security.
The House Appropriations Committee agreed this week to a $25 billion increase for the Defense Department in the new budget, not including another $25 billion that the administration is seeking to fight the war in Iraq. The Pentagon alone will claim nearly half of all the funds available for the 13 bills.
Increases are also slated for homeland security, foreign aid and military construction, but most domestic programs would be held close to or below their current levels.
"The austere funding levels will make it challenging to move bills through the legislative process this year," House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said.
The natural resources, Interior Department and arts bill voted on yesterday reflects those spending pressures. Land conservation programs would be cut from $1.2 billion to $900 million, but there would be a small increase for operating national parks. Funds for fighting wildfires -- a top priority of both parties -- is increased by nearly 10 percent, to $2.6 billion, and $1 billion is set aside in 2004 and 2005 in an emergency fund for firefighting.
Faced with the need to fund such priorities, Republicans decided to reject virtually all major Bush administration initiatives, including several programs for the arts that received wide coverage when they were announced earlier this year.
The $18 million request for the "American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius" program had been announced by Laura Bush. Funds would be used by the National Endowment for the Arts to send top American orchestras, musical ensembles, theater groups and collections of paintings to communities and military bases around the country.
An NEA spokeswoman, Felicia Knight, said that despite "disappointment" over the results of the markup yesterday, the administration hoped the funding could yet be obtained by amending the natural resources bill as it moves through Congress.