Democrats Reverse Bush-Sought Cuts In Final Budget Bill

Monday, December 17th 2007, 6:47 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lawmakers unveiled a $500 billion-plus catchall spending bill Sunday, reluctantly sticking within President Bush's budget but still protecting politically sensitive domestic programs from White House cuts.

The bill wraps together the budgets for every Cabinet department except the Pentagon and is expected to pass Congress this week before lawmakers head home for Christmas. The result is a disappointing defeat for Democrats seeking to add $27 billion to domestic programs, an almost 7 percent increase.

Bush sought a less than 1 percent increase overall for domestic programs, which wouldn't have made up for inflation, much less population growth. His budget was layered with budget cuts and program eliminations that had been rejected in years past by GOP-dominated Congresses.

Democrats succeeded in reversing cuts to heating subsidies, local law enforcement, Amtrak and housing as well as Bush's plan to eliminate the $654 million budget for grants to community action agencies that help the poor.

To find the money, lawmakers shifted $6 billion from Bush's plans for defense, foreign aid and military base construction accounts. And they've added $2 billion in future-year appropriations for education that, for practical purposes, adds to Bush's 2008 budget. Veterans would get $3.7 billion more than Bush requested, but only if he changes his mind and decides the money is needed.

The budget legerdemain allowed Democrats to put their imprint on the bill, saving programs such as the $140 million Commodity Supplemental Food Program, targeted for elimination by Bush but given a 30 percent budget hike by Democrats. The program provides nutritionally balanced boxes of food to about a half-million mostly elderly poor people per month.

``The omnibus appropriations bill is totally inadequate to meet the long-term investment needs of the country, but it is a whole lot better than the country would have had had it not elected a Democratic House last year,'' said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

The measure caps months of battling with Bush over the one-sixth of the budget passed each year by Congress for domestic programs such as education, food aid, and low-income housing. Bush steadfastly refused to negotiate with Congress over a cap of $933 billion for all such discretionary appropriations, which include the $459 billion defense budget bill enacted last month. Democrats sought $23 billion above Bush's cap.

The cuts forced Democrats to give up many initiatives, such as a more than $2 billion increase over Bush's homeland security budget. But $3 billion in ``emergency'' funding sought by Republicans to build a fence and provide other border security measures freed up money to help Democrats add $1.8 billion above Bush's request for homeland security grants to states and local governments, including big increases for rail and port security.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency programs would get almost $500 million above Bush's budget, while energy subsidies for the poor would get a $409 million increase, to $2.6 billion.

For many Republicans, the budget battle represented a chance to take a stand against government spending and aim to get back the support of core GOP voters.

But the amount of money at stake was relatively small in the context of an almost $3 trillion federal budget, especially compared with the more than $50 billion increase Bush sought for the Pentagon's regular budget, his 12 percent requested increase for foreign aid and his almost $200 billion request for one year's worth of military and diplomatic activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the final wave of cuts, White House priorities took a whack. Abstinence education increases, awarded to Republicans as incentive for their support of earlier bills, felt the axe. Bush's top foreign aid initiative, the Millennium Challenge Corp. that provides aid to countries making economic and democratic gains, is cut $208 million below 2007 levels, to $1.5 billion, half of Bush's request.

For Democrats, just finishing the budget _ while filling in Bush's domestic cuts _ ended up as the driving goal. They wanted to avoid the humiliation of failing to enact the spending bills after blasting Republicans for not doing so last year. Also at stake were billions of dollars in lawmakers' cherished ``earmarks,'' pet projects such as grants to hometown law enforcement agencies, road and bridge projects and research grants to home-state universities. The cost of these earmarks is down at least 40 percent from two years ago, Democrats say.

House leaders hope to bring the bill to a vote as early as Monday, an accelerated schedule that is certain to draw objections from Republicans desiring more time to scrutinize it for questionable items, controversial policy add-ons and pork barrel projects.

The measure includes $31 billion for operations in Afghanistan and some domestic Pentagon needs, but no funding for Iraq.

But Republicans are expected to add up to $40 billion for Iraq when the Senate debates the bill. The House would have to pass it again over objections from anti-war Democrats.

In addition to the veterans' funding above Bush's request, the omnibus spending package being assembled adds $7.4 billion for various emergencies, including border security, foreign aid and State Department operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, drought relief, heating subsidies for the poor and covering a shortfall in a food program for women and children.