Wednesday, November 16, 2005

House-Senate negotiators boost veterans funding, freeze education

Money for veterans health care would get a big boost, but federal aid for education would be frozen under bills emerging from House-Senate negotiations.

A sprawling bill funding education, labor and health and human services programs remains in negotiations after House-Senate talks Monday night. But the spending levels in the measure – which flow from President Bush's budget as endorsed by Congress – are so stringent that the lead Senate negotiator, moderate Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called them "scandalous" and said he may vote against the bill.

"It's that bad," Specter said.


Talks on two other bills also advanced. Negotiators approved money for veterans programs, including $2.5 billion above Bush's original budget for Veterans Affairs medical care, where costs are rapidly spiraling above earlier VA estimates.

The outcome of talks on a bill funding a broad array of social programs within the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education is less clear. Spending is so squeezed in that bill that negotiators dropped plans to spend about $1 billion in home-state "earmarks" for lawmakers that typically go to universities and local health clinics and hospitals.

Without hometown projects, lawmakers wary about cutting Bush's No Child Left Behind education initiative and other programs have little incentive to vote for the bill, and it seems House GOP leaders face a big struggle in getting it passed before stopgap spending authority expires Friday.

Lawmakers are trying to wrap up work on the 11 spending bills comprising the approximately one-third of the federal budget that Congress passes each year. After years of consistent increases, the overall budget for domestic agencies – with the exception of the Homeland Security Department – is essentially frozen or even slightly below last year's levels.

The Senate vote clears the sixth of 11 spending bills for the president's signature. Lawmakers hope to complete action on remaining domestic bills by Friday. The temporary funding bill has been in place since the budget year began Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, a $453 billion defense bill, though nearly complete, is being held in reserve despite protests from the Pentagon. GOP leaders may use the politically unstoppable bill to carry other legislative freight.

The advances on the appropriations bills contrasts with the difficulties House leaders have had in passing $50 billion-plus in cuts over five years to so-called mandatory spending – the approximately 55 percent of the budget for programs like Medicare and Medicaid that rise automatically each year. GOP leaders scrapped plans for a vote last week.

The administration is playing hardball as numerous other battles play out on the other spending bills.
Read more from the AP via the SignOn SanDiego...

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