House-Senate negotiators unveil spending bill

November 15, 2011 - 1:40 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — House-Senate negotiators agreed Monday night on a bundle of spending measures for the ongoing budget year, blending cuts to NASA and community development programs while averting cuts to nutrition programs like food stamps.

The approximately $182 billion measure would fund the day-to-day departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the space program.

It also contains stopgap spending legislation to keep the government running until Dec. 16 to buy lawmakers more time for a raft of other spending bills, but many of those measures are freighted with controversy. Without the stopgap measure, the government would partially shut down this weekend.

Lawmakers face a midnight deadline on Friday to act on the measure. House and Senate leaders promised votes this week on the legislation.

The legislation would represent the first concrete step to implement a contentious budget pact sealed by President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans this summer, which traded a $2 trillion-plus increase in the government's ability to borrow to meet its obligations with promises of future budget cuts.

The legislation represents a hard-fought bargain between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic Senate by the powerful Appropriations committees. But it's sure to run into opposition from tea party Republicans who want deeper cuts.

"We've cut total discretionary spending for the second year in a row — a remarkable achievement that will save taxpayers billions of dollars and help get our nation's budget back into balance," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.

It comes as a congressional debt-reduction supercommittee is wrestling over cuts to benefit programs like Medicare and farm subsidies, whose budgets essentially run on autopilot and aren't funded year to year.

Congress has yet to complete action on a single spending measure for the 2012 budget year, which started more than a month ago.

The August budget agreement set a $1.043 trillion "cap" on agency operating levels, about a $7 billion cut — less than 1 percent — from prior-year levels. But the budget pact also permits more than $11 billion in additional spending for natural disasters, which means the current crop of spending bills will ultimately exceed the cost of the last round — a sore point with tea party conservatives already unhappy with the GOP's efforts to cut spending.

The measure contains $2.3 billion for disaster aid, much of it to rebuild roads and bridges destroyed by this year's floods in the Northeast and Midwest. A later bill would provide the Federal Emergency Management Agency with several billion dollars more.

An earlier omnibus spending measure enacted in April covered the 2011 budget year that ended on Sept. 30. It cut spending below 2010 levels set by a Democratic-controlled Congress by about $40 billion.

Monday's measure covers everything from community development grants, Amtrak operating subsidies, funding for private sector space flight and the FBI. Still to come is legislation funding the Pentagon, homeland security and a variety of other agencies. Future bills will prove more difficult to negotiate as rival Democrats and Republicans have to sort through dozens of controversies involving environmental policy and other flashpoints like abortion.

The Senate on Monday turned to another hybrid measure blending the foreign aid budget with budgets for the Energy and Treasury departments.

NASA would absorb a $648 million cut to its budget made possible by the retirement of the space shuttle fleet. Democrats restored cuts to housing subsidies for the poor, food stamps and a popular program that feeds mothers and their infants. Amtrak would receive $1.4 billion for operating subsidies and capital improvements, while a much-criticized program that subsidizes airlines that serve rural airports was largely left intact.

Obama's request for a huge budget increase for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is responsible for implementing much of last year's rewrite of financial regulation, was cut from $308 million to $205 million. The Wall St. overhaul is deeply unpopular with most Republicans.

The measure doesn't contain congressional pet projects known as earmarks, which have been banned at the insistence of Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. But opponents of spending will still find much to dislike, such as potato and aquaculture research.

The House is slated to vote on the spending measures on Thursday, with the Senate to follow.