Huge spending bill would bury budget battles
Top congressional negotiators Monday night released a bipartisan $1.1 trillion spending bill that would pay for the operations of government through October and finally put to rest the bitter budget battles of last year.
The massive measure fleshes out the details of the budget deal that Congress passed last month. That pact gave relatively modest, but much-sought relief to the Pentagon and domestic agencies after deep budget cuts last year.
The bill would avert spending cuts that threatened construction of new aircraft carriers and next-generation Joint Strike Fighters. It maintains rent subsidies for the poor, awards federal civilian and military workers a 1 percent raise and beefs up security at U.S. embassies across the globe. The Obama administration would be denied money to meet its full commitments to the International Monetary Fund but get much of the money it wanted to pay for implementation of the new health care law and the 2010 overhaul of financial regulations.
The 1,582-page bill was released after weeks of negotiations between House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Senate counterpart Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who kept a tight lid on the details until its release late Monday.
"This agreement shows the American people that we can compromise, and that we can govern," Mikulski said. "It puts an end to shutdown, slowdown, slamdown politics."
The GOP-led House is slated to vote on the measure Wednesday, less than 48 hours after it became public. In their campaign to take over the House in 2010, Republicans promised a 72-hour review period. On Tuesday, the House is slated to approve a short-term funding bill to extend the Senate's deadline to finish the overall spending bill until midnight on Saturday. The current short-term spending bill expires at midnight Wednesday evening.
The measure doesn't contain in-your face victories for either side. The primary achievement was that there was an agreement in the first place after the collapse of the budget process last year, followed by a 16-day government shutdown and another brush with a disastrous first-ever default on U.S. obligations. After the shutdown and debt crisis last fall, House Budget committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., struck an agreement to avoid a repeat of the 5 percent cut applied to domestic agencies last year and to prevent the Pentagon from absorbing about $20 billion in new cuts on top of the ones that hit it last year.
White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell called the measure a "positive step" because it "unwinds some of the damaging cuts caused by sequestration, ensures the continuation of critical services the American people depend on, and brings us closer to returning the budget process to regular order." She also praised investments in early childhood education and infrastructure.
To be sure, there is plenty for both parties to oppose in the legislation. Conservatives face a vote to finance implementation of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and Wall Street regulations, both enacted in 2010 over solid Republican opposition. A conservative-backed initiative to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions was dumped overboard and social conservatives failed to win new restrictions on abortion. But Rogers muscled through other victories for the coal industry such as keeping the door open for Export-Import Bank financing of coal power plants overseas.
Democrats must accept new money for abstinence education programs they often ridicule, and conservatives can take heart that overall spending for daily agency operations has been cut by $79 billion, or 7 percent, from the high-water mark established by Democrats in 2010. That cut increases to $165 billion, or 13 percent, when cuts in war funding and disaster spending are accounted for. Money for Obama's high-speed rail program would be cut off, and rules restricting the sale of less efficient incandescent light bulbs would be blocked.
Democrats are more likely to climb aboard than tea party Republicans, but only after voting to give Obama about $6 billion more in Pentagon war funding than the $79 billion he requested. The additional war money is helping the Pentagon deal with a cash crunch in troop readiness accounts. Including foreign aid related to overseas security operations, total war funding reaches $92 billion, a slight cut from last year.
The alternative, however, is to allow automatic spending cuts to strike for a second year and even risk another government shutdown if Congress deadlocks.
At the same time, the bill is laced with sweeteners. One is a provision exempting disabled veterans and war widows from a pension cut enacted last month. The bill contains increases for veterans' medical care backed by both sides and fully funds the $6.7 billion budget for food aid for low-income pregnant women and their children. Yet the National Institutes of Health's proposed budget of $29.9 billion falls short of the $31 billion budget it won when Democrats controlled Congress. Democrats won a $100 million increase, to $600 million, for so-called TIGER grants for high-priority transportation infrastructure projects, a program that started with the 2009 stimulus bill.
The Internal Revenue Service budget was frozen at last year's post-sequester levels, as was the Transportation Security Administration. But Interior Department firefighting accounts won a major boost, more than 10 percent. A key State Department economic aid program absorbed an almost one-quarter cut from levels passed last March.
Overall, the measure keeps funding for day-to-day domestic agency budgets at levels agreed to last year before cuts of 5 percent were applied to every account. Those broadly applied cuts, called sequestration, were required because of Washington's inability to follow up a 2011 budget deal with additional deficit savings.
The spending bill would spare the Pentagon from a brutal second-wave cut of $20 billion in additional reductions on top of last year's $34 billion sequestration cut, which forced furloughs of civilian employees and harmed training and readiness accounts.
Consistent with recent defense measures, the bill largely fulfills the Pentagon's request for ships, aircraft, tanks, helicopters and other war-fighting equipment, including 29 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, eight new warships as requested by the Navy, and a variety of other aircraft like the V-22 Osprey, new and improved F-18 fighters and new Army helicopters.
It also boosts funding by nearly $200 million for the joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense program known as David's Sling and Iron Dome. Israel's Iron Dome system is designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars, and Congress repeatedly increases the amount of money for the program beyond an administration request.