Racing to produce its fiscal 2006 spending bills in record time, the House approved funding for the Justice, State and Commerce departments, among other agencies, and moved toward passage of a huge Pentagon spending bill.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) aims to produce all 11 House spending bills by July -- about a month ahead of schedule -- and with only four more bills ahead of him, he is well on his way to reaching that goal.
But many lawmakers remain frustrated by the tight caps that President Bush is attempting to impose on spending other than for Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs. One House effort, to redirect $3.3 billion from the Pentagon to other programs, has already drawn strong administration objections and may foreshadow a tug of war over defense vs. domestic priorities -- especially if the Senate, as expected, pushes even harder to beef up nonmilitary accounts.
Though the $408.9 billion defense appropriations bill has attracted little controversy, it did spark Democratic criticism of the Iraq war. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sought unsuccessfully to amend the Pentagon bill with a requirement that Bush identify criteria for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq.
Referring to the war's ballooning price tag, Pelosi said: "This appropriations bill, which has more money for Iraq, is an appropriate place for us to direct that the information be provided."
A dispute over reproductive cloning threatened to derail another spending bill, to fund health and education programs, that the Appropriations Committee considered last night.
Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.) tried to insert language that would prevent funding through the National Institutes of Health to be spent on any entity engaged in human cloning or on research using all or part of any cloned human embryo. Weldon, a physician, said the matter is urgent, given the pace of progress in reproductive cloning.
"This is the only vehicle I see," he told the committee.
The medical research community rallied against the amendment, which it said would punish institutions for conducting research on stem cells derived from cloned embryos. Penalizing institutions and researchers involved in molecular biology, cancer and neuroscience "would be shortsighted and delay advances in many areas of science that are unrelated to reproductive cloning," Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science, said in a letter to the Appropriations Committee.
Lewis implored his colleagues to reject the measure, noting that it is a policy matter and does not belong in a spending bill. He added that it would encounter strong opposition in the Senate.
The Weldon amendment failed 36 to 29, but the committee passed the bill last night. A provision provides additional funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Overall, the spending process in the House is unfolding smoothly, with most bills sailing through. The Commerce-State-Justice bill passed by an overwhelming 418 to 7 vote and would provide about $57.5 billion in fiscal 2006 funding, slightly more than $1 billion over the current year's level.
The largest portion, $21.4 billion, is directed to the Justice Department. Reflecting a growing concern about unmet domestic security needs, the House added about $100 million to Bush's funding requests for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Although many lawmakers wanted a bigger increase, the House bill added $1 billion to the administration's proposed contribution to state and local crime-fighting initiatives, bringing the total to $2.6 billion. The extra money would help eliminate DNA-analysis backlogs and ease illegal-immigrant detention costs, among other efforts.
Another beneficiary is NASA, which would receive $16.5 billion under the House bill. One of NASA's major benefactors is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), whose Houston area district includes the Johnson Space Center. DeLay helped to turn back raids on NASA's funding, including a bid by Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, to transfer $200 million from the space agency to state and local law enforcement.
The legislation provides $9.5 billion to the State Department, including $1.5 billion to make security improvements in U.S. embassies and $4.4 billion for diplomatic and consular programs. The Commerce Department, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Legal Services Corporation would also be funded under the bill.