After several years of chaos, House and Senate leaders are seeking to restore order to the spending process as part of a broader effort to impose fiscal discipline. But this year's strict budget limits have made negotiations more contentious than usual and exposed stark differences between Republicans and Democrats over the government's priorities.
House GOP leaders were dealt a rare blow Thursday, when moderate Republicans teamed up with Democrats to reject a major labor, health and education appropriations bill that would have reduced spending by $1.4 billion this year. Some lawmakers complained that the $142.5 billion measure did not contain money for many of the special pork-barrel projects they sought for their home districts.
Now the bill must be returned to negotiators for more fine-tuning, as Democrats and moderate Republicans press for more funding for disease research and subsidies to help low-income people pay their heating bills.
The impasse highlights the challenge of Republicans in seeking to satisfy conservative calls for a return to fiscal discipline while coping with mounting demands for relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina and staggering costs associated with the war in Iraq. Republicans say they are up to the task, citing the House vote early Friday that narrowly approved a five-year budget plan to cut $50 billion of entitlement spending.
"What it does is start to turn down the escalating costs . . . for our children and our grandchildren," said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "One of the things that we cannot leave to that next generation is a huge deficit that they can't afford."
But the GOP leadership is finding the going tough simply to complete the dozen fiscal 2006 spending bills essential to keep the government operating.
For example, the $445 billion defense spending bill has become entangled in a rash of disputes in recent weeks, including one over Sen. John McCain's drive to crack down on the torture of terrorism suspects being held in U.S. prison facilities. Because it may be the last appropriations bill completed this year, the defense measure may attract many last-minute provisions, including an across-the-board cut in federal agencies' spending that House conservatives are seeking.
Before they left town Friday for a two-week recess, lawmakers approved a resolution to keep the government funds flowing until Dec. 17, including money for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One spending bill that breezed through the House and the Senate on Friday would provide $45.4 billion in military construction funds and veterans benefits. Medical services, including mental health treatment and prosthetic limb research, would receive funding increases, and new housing would be provided for nearly 15,000 military families.
The popularity of military-related programs is one reason the across-the-board cut is likely to meet stiff opposition. "We can't allow it to happen," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who serves on the Appropriations Committee.
A second bill, containing $65.9 billion for the transportation, Treasury and housing departments, was also approved by the House and the Senate on Friday. But that one had been mired in conflict until final passage.
It had been held up in part because of a provision regarding the jurisdiction of lawsuits directed at moving companies for overcharging. Another controversial measure would permit Southwest Airlines to fly to Missouri from Dallas's Love Field, part of a broader bid by the low-fare carrier to repeal a 1979 law, supported by rival American Airlines, that limits flights from Love Field.
The bill also shifts $450 million in funding for two Alaska bridge projects, including one that gained notoriety as the "Bridge to Nowhere" because of its remote location.
Amtrak would receive $1.3 billion under the bill, about $100 million more than last year. It is a blow to President Bush, who had sought deep cuts to the troubled passenger service. The bill would require Amtrak to reduce its operating subsidy, including savings in food and beverage service, first-class service and commuter rail fees.
Lawmakers are so desperate to squeeze extra funds in the giant health and education bill that they are considering shifting money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating bill subsidies for poor people, into an emergency account, to free up funds for other programs.
"This is not the way really to do business," said Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "These are not normal times, however."
The squeeze on health and education programs even elicited bitter complaints from the bill's Senate author, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
"Among many tough choices in this job, this is the toughest one I have made in my tenure in the Senate," said Specter, who opted to eliminate $1 billion in special projects from the bill, rather than further reduce home heating subsidizes and other high priorities.
Many Republicans view the health and education bill as an embodiment of Democratic social policies, and were content with its tight margins. "I'm not ashamed of this bill at all," Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.) said.
Democrats saw the $1.5 billion reduction from last year's funding levels as a damaging consequence of the GOP drive to shrink government. "This is a growing country. It has growing problems. It has growing opportunities," said Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "If this bill does not grow with it, then we lose ground."
Unlike the health and education bill, which was stripped of special projects, the transportation and housing package included money for many perks. The $8.47 billion allocated for the Federal Transit Administration would pay for rural transportation assistance, capital investment grants, buses and bus-related facilities, and commuter initiatives.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development was funded at $38.2 billion, about $2.1 billion over last year's level. The bill would provide money for several public housing-related programs that Bush proposed axing. A lead abatement initiative that was targeted for elimination wound up getting $48 million. The HOPE VI program for revitalizing distressed units received $100 million, although Bush had wanted to kill it. The bill also rejected a White House bid to rescind $143 million from the program.
Bush had proposed eliminating the Community Development Block Grant Program, but the bill included $4.2 billion for it, and rejected an effort to transfer its functions to the Department of Department.
Congress gave itself a $3,100 pay raise in the transportation and housing bill, and provided a cost-of-living adjustment for federal judges. One Treasury Department provision that negotiators reluctantly omitted from earlier legislation would have loosened agricultural trade barriers with Cuba. The White House had threatened a veto unless the Cuba language was dropped.
"The administration is flat dead-wrong on that provision," complained Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who wrote the Senate version of the transportation bill.