Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Agencies face budget curbs in $1 trillion bill

(AP)Facing a weekend deadline to avoid a government shutdown, a combative Congress appears on track to advance a massive $1 trillion-plus yearend spending package that curbs agency budgets but drops many policy provisions sought by GOP conservatives.
Lawmakers reached a tentative agreement Monday on the measure. It chips away at the Pentagon budget, foreign aid and environmental spending but boosts funding for veterans programs and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The measure generally pleases environmentalists, who succeeded in stopping industry forces from blocking new clean air rules and a new clean water regulation opposed by mountaintop removal mining interests. House Republicans appeared likely to win concessions that would roll back administration efforts to ease restrictions on Cuban immigrants on traveling to the island and sending cash back to family members there.
On spending, the measure implements this summer's hard-fought budget pact between President Barack Obama and Republican leaders. That deal essentially freezes agency budgets, on average, at levels for the recently completed budget year that were approved back in April.
Drafted behind closed doors, the proposed bill would provide $115 billion for overseas security operations in Afghanistan and Iraq but give the Pentagon just a 1 percent boost in annual spending not directly related to the wars. The Environmental Protection Agency's budget would be cut by 3.5 percent. Foreign aid spending would drop and House lawmakers would absorb a 6 percent cut to their office budgets.
The bill also covers money for combating AIDS and famine in Africa, patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, operating national parks and boosting veterans' health care.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said bargainers had struck an agreement but would not formally unveil it until Tuesday. Other lawmakers said some issues remain to be finalized.
A House vote is expected Thursday and the Senate is likely to follow in time to meet a midnight Friday deadline before a stopgap funding measure expires.
The generally smooth, businesslike negotiations on the omnibus spending bill contrast with the ongoing partisan brawl over Obama's demand that Congress extend jobless benefits and a cut in the Social Security payroll tax. The House is slated to vote on a GOP-friendly version of the payroll tax cut Tuesday; negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate on a compromise measure have yet to begin.
The delay into Tuesday on the spending measure stemmed in large part from displeasure on the part of Senate Democratic leaders, upset about the hard line taken by Republicans on the payroll tax cut measure. Democrats are seeking to ensure both the spending measure and the payroll tax bill pass before Congress adjourns for the year.
"They're connected politically. We need to do it all before we go home," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Rogers was pushing until the end to block clean water rules opposed by mining companies that blast the tops off mountains, to no avail. Top Appropriations Committee Democrat Norm Dicks of Washington, when asked if the mountaintop mining rider was still a concern, said, "It would be if it were in" the final legislation.
Dicks also predicted failure for several GOP attempts to block the EPA's authority to issue greenhouse gas regulations and new limits on hazardous emissions under the Clean Air Act.
House GOP leaders pressed riders to block the Obama administration's 2009 policy lifting restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to families remaining in Cuba, and some Democrats backing the administration policy seemed resigned to defeat.
On spending, the measure generally consists of relatively small adjustments to thousands of individual programs. Agencies like the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement will get a boost within the Homeland Security Department, while GOP defense hawks won additional funding to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. The troubled, over-budget, next-generation F-35 fighter plane program would be largely protected.
Democrats won a modest increase in funding for schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students.

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