Democrats push budget bill toward House vote

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Democrats say they are making the best of a bad situation as they bring to the House floor a massive bill cobbling together $463.5 billion in unfinished budget business.

The bill, combining the budgets of 13 Cabinet agencies, won praise Tuesday from Democratic Party allies such as activists pressing the fight against AIDS overseas and advocates for boosting education funding.

The White House signaled that President Bush would sign the bill into law.

Lawmakers in both parties hailed the bill for freeing highway construction funds, even as the White House complained that the bill will slow aid to communities harmed by a 2005 round of military base closings and cut a request for basic scientific research.

Still, the White House signaled that President Bush would sign the bill into law.

The House debate on Wednesday promises to be bitter, and the measure appears likely to pass on a largely party-line vote. But Republicans in the Senate appear unlikely to place procedural hurdles in its path.

The harshest criticism came from House Republicans, who complained that they were shut out of any chance to offer changes to the bill -- and had barely any time to read it.

Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the Appropriations Committee's top Republican -- displaced as chairman last fall -- ripped into the Democrats for rushing the bill to the House floor "without any prior debate whatsoever and without the opportunity to offer even one amendment on the floor."

Republicans also took issue with Democrats' claim to have "scrubbed" the bill free of home state projects. They pointed to, for example, $50 million to match last year's funding for the Denali Commission, which funds rural road, sanitation, energy and other infrastructure projects in Alaska. Then there was the Senate's refusal to kill $45 million in funding for an indoor rainforest project in central Iowa, even though local backers have yet to come up with their required share of funding.

Democrats sought to focus attention of numerous -- albeit generally small -- funding increases they managed to provide in favored accounts, even while living within tight limits set by Bush and last year's GOP-dominated Congress.

The powerful veterans lobby won a $3.6 billion increase for medical care, earning praise from veterans groups and the White House, while low-income college students would receive a $260 boost in the maximum Pell Grant, to $4,310.

"After five years of broken promises from the administration, this is an important down payment by Democrats on our commitment to help families with high college costs," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

State and local law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, won increases in grants for new equipment and hiring new officers.

Community development block grants, however, were frozen at current levels, as was Amtrak. But advocates for those programs took them as a victory relative to Bush's budget submitted a year ago.

Activists pressing for big boosts to combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis overseas won a $1.3 billion increase -- to $4.5 billion. That's enough to fund the president's $225 million initiative to fight malaria and increase the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to $724 million.

The rock star Bono, who quarreled with House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey in a meeting last month, praised Democrats -- though he might not be invited back to Obey's for a while after making demands the prickly Wisconsin Democrat found unreasonable.

The measure also lifted funding for highways, transit and motor carrier safety programs by $4 billion -- to the amount specified in the six-year highway spending bill passed in 1995 and increases funding every year.

Bush's request for the Millennium Challenge Corp., which channels foreign aid to countries implementing economic and political reforms, was frozen at $1.7 billion, drawing a mild rebuke from the administration.

Senate Republicans predicted that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would schedule debate close to a Feb. 15 deadline and give them little choice but to pass the bill.

"What do they want?" Reid asked. "To close the government down?"

Asked how he thought debate might go, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: "Quickly."

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