House passes financial services spending bill

The House Thursday defied the Bush administration by voting to ease restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba, provoking yet another veto fight, this time on a $21.4 billion bill funding agencies including the Treasury Department, which promulgated the rule.

In a Statement of Administration Policy this week, the White House said "if the final version of the bill contained a provision that weakens current restrictions against Cuba, the president would veto the bill."

The underlying bill passed on a 240-179 vote, with more than enough opposition to sustain a veto.

The Cuba amendment by Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., passed on a voice vote and is similar to language approved in recent years that has always been stripped out during final negotiations on spending bills overseen by GOP leaders, so as not to provoke a fight with the White House.

Democratic leaders, with backing from farm-state Republicans, are unlikely to show the same deference.

Defusing another potential veto fight, Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., was able to strike language that would have enabled domestic partners to receive healthcare benefits in the District of Columbia.

The White House said "senior advisers would recommend" the president veto the bill if the language were included in the final bill. The vote was 224-200, with 40 Democrats voting for it.

The Financial Services measure also funds operations of the White House itself, and on that front, Vice President Dick Cheney narrowly survived a challenge from Democrats seeking to strip funds for his office. That amendment, offered by Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, failed on a 217-209 vote.

Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., called it "an amendment in search of a press release" and enough Democrats crossed party lines to defeat it.

Twenty-four House Democrats, including Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., voted against the amendment. But it could come up during Senate consideration, with Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., indicating he might insert similar language in the Financial Services spending bill in that chamber.

Business groups and anti-tax activists got a victory during floor debate that goes against both the administration's position and that of House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass.

By a surprisingly large margin, the House voted 267-154 to approve an amendment by GOP Reps. Scott Garrett of New Jersey and Tom Feeney of Florida to exempt small businesses from having to comply with requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate governance law for a year.

Backers argue small companies have had difficulty meeting the requirements, which include establishing and maintaining internal controls and financial reporting procedures that must be certified by an outside accounting firm.

But the delay faces an uphill fight in conference. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox oppose delaying the requirements, as does Frank, who said it would open the door to weakening the landmark law. "This is the beginning of an assault on Sarbanes-Oxley in general," Frank said.

The underlying bill provides a 9.7 percent boost over current year funding for programs within its purview, which includes the federal judiciary, District of Columbia and regulatory agencies.

It is slightly below the president's request, making it one of the few spending bills to comply with Bush's budget limits, but its $1.9 billion increase above the current fiscal year led to significant GOP opposition.

The total Internal Revenue Service budget would be $11.2 billion, a 5 percent boost over the current year, which in particular drew heavy fire from Republicans. The bill would increase IRS taxpayer assistance services by $51.9 million above the president's request, to $2.16 billion, directing additions to education programs, face-to-face assistance, low-income taxpayer clinics and assistance to the elderly.

Another winner is the Community Development Financial Institutions fund, which aids organizations that support economic development in disadvantaged areas. Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., nearly doubled the program's budget to $100 million, more than three times what Bush requested.

Regulatory agencies would all receive boosts. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is funded at $3.6 million above the request, enough to head off staff cutbacks. The Federal Trade Commission would get an extra $7.25 million over the request to bolster subprime lending investigations and combat identity theft.

The SEC is funded at $908.4 million, including $3.1 million above the Bush request. Additional money would be steered toward enhancing investigations of accounting fraud, insider trading and investment scams targeting seniors and low-income communities.

Members of the conservative Republican Study Committee were unsuccessful in stripping from the bill all but one earmark.

Democrats and Republicans teamed up, 249-174 to eliminate $125,000 for the "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree" project. The money was requested by Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who has rubbed a number of members the wrong way for his caustic criticism of earmarking practices. All other attempts to strip earmarks failed by roughly 3-to-1 margins.

By a 309-115 vote, the House also adopted an amendment by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., to block the Federal Communications Commission from reviving the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" requiring broadcasters to air opposing viewpoints. Conservatives fear restoration of the requirement, repealed in 1987, would slice their favored radio and television hosts' airtime.

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