House-Senate negotiators unveil spending bill

November 15, 2011 - 1:50 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate negotiators have agreed 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.

The approximately $182 billion measure announced late Monday would fund day-to-day operations at the 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 and 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 Friday deadline to act on the measure. House and Senate leaders promised votes this week.

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.

"Nobody got everything they wanted but common ground has been found," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. "The conference agreement restores funding to many programs and agencies House Republicans proposed eliminating or inadequately funding. Funding for law enforcement, food safety, nutrition, science research, transportation and housing have been given acceptable appropriations."

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 Sept. 30. It cut spending below 2010 levels set by a Democratic-controlled Congress by about $40 billion.

The range of spending covered by Monday's measure includes 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 flashpoints like environmental policy and abortion.

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

NASA would absorb a $648 million cut, made possible by the retirement of the space shuttle fleet. Democrats restored cuts to housing subsidies for the poor and a popular program that feeds mothers and their infants. Amtrak would receive $1.4 billion for operating subsidies and capital improvements. Democrats prevented service cuts on money-losing short-distance Amtrak routes; Republicans won a limit on overtime for Amtrak workers and repelled a bid by Senate Democrats for $100 million for much-criticized high-speed rail lines.

A much-criticized program that subsidizes airlines that serve rural airports — often for hundreds of dollars a ticket — was largely left intact, though new communities would not be allowed to apply for the program.

Democrats also restored cuts proposed by House Republicans to police hiring grants, but Republicans managed to block the Obama administration from creating a Climate Service office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study global warming. Obama requested $322 million to establish the new climate change office.

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 Street overhaul is deeply unpopular with most Republicans.

The measure also continues a provision in existing law that blocks the government from transferring or releasing any detainee held at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba into the United States.

It's not the first time Congress has tried to restrict the executive branch's options on detainee issues. Last year's defense bill barred the transfer of detainees at the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States. The omnibus spending bill that Obama and Congress approved in April also prevented the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the U.S., prohibited the construction or modification of facilities in the United States to house detainees and required the defense secretary to notify Congress before transferring a terror suspect to a foreign country.

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 Thursday on the spending measures, with the Senate to follow.