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Senate Debates Broad Domestic Program Funding

October 17, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

The Labor-HHS-Education bill is the biggest of the appropriations bills President Bush has threatened to veto. It contains nearly half of the total difference between the President’s and Congress’s 2008 spending levels for the entire government. It also contains funding for a lot of politically sensitive domestic programs like special education for children with disabilities, cancer research and low-income heating aid. Therefore, for both fiscal and policy reasons, this bill exemplifies the many of the chief differences between Bush and the Democrat-led Congress the budget debate.

The bill’s total discretionary spending level is $152 billion - about $2 billion less than the version passed by the House in July and $8.3 billion more than what Bush has requested. Between the 12 appropriations bills that make up the budget, Congress’s proposals exceed Bush’s by $23 billion. For the sake of context, know that Bush’s total budget request for 2008 is about $2.9 trillion. Here are all these figures stacked up against each other ">a chart provided by OMBWatch.

“The president is demanding that we continue to spend more than $12 billion a month in Iraq on the war, yet the president is threatening to veto this bill because it spends $11 billion more for the year than he wants,” said Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). And there is another argument being thrown around that makes Bush’s veto threat look hypocritical. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out that “after adjusting for inflation and population growth, the appropriations bills the President is likely to veto — including the Labor-HHS-Education bill — would cost less in 2008 than the corresponding bills cost, on average, during 2002-2006.”

Besides what President Bush sees as “irresponsible and excessive levels of spending,” he had also threatened his veto based on provisions that would have put in place new ethics guidelines while expanding the embryonic stem cell lines available for federal funding to those derived before June 15. But the two highest ranking members of the committee responsible for the bill, Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) decided today to drop the stem-cell provision as a sign to Bush that they hope to reach a compromise that allows them to retain their funding levels for other policy priorities included in the bill.

“I must say that I do this with a lot of regret,” Harkin said on the Senate floor during his announcement that he is dropping the stem-cell language. “We’re willing to try to meet the president halfway. And so in that spirit of compromise, we know the president’s strong feelings against this.”

One of the most contentious areas is Education funding. Bush’s budget would decrease funding for the Department of Education by $1.3 billion from last year, while Congress’s would increase it by $2.6 billion — a difference of $3.9 billion, nearly half of the total difference for this bill. The Center for American Progress points out that some educational programs would see increases under Bush’s proposal — i.e. Pell grants, education loans and school improvement grants — many more would be rolled back or cut entirely. They have put together an interactive map showing that “44 out of 50 states would see reductions in federal funding for elementary and secondary education for fiscal year 2008.” You can scroll over the states to which ones would be hit the hardest by Bush’s budget proposal.

Another contentious area involves labor issues. Congress’s budget proposes cutting back funding for Office of Labor Managment Standards in the Department of Labor (OLMS) by $2 million from 2007, a four percent reduction. It’s a relatively small amount of money, but since this office is responsible for holding organized labor accountable for its actions, Republicans are planning to attack it as a political favor to their pro-Union backers. Rob Bluey points out that the office has found some unsavory things recently as they have increased their oversight of union spending and disclosure:

>The increased transparency has revealed some embarrassing expenditures for unions, such as the $1.9 million spent by the International Association of Machinists on its very own Lear jet. But while transparency is a good thing for union members who expect good stewardship from their leaders, it has met resistance on Capitol Hill, where many liberals count on union leaders for fundraising help.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has already offered an amendment that would not only restore OLMS funding in the 2008 bill to its 2007 level, but also boost it by $3 million.

The Senate is hoping to pass this bill by the end of the week. After that, a conference committee will have to smooth out the differences between the Senate and House versions. It will then be ready to send to the President for his — assuming he doesn’t retract his threat in light of the dropped stem-cell language — veto.

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