Cheney standoff with Democrats extends to spending bill

Senate appropriators approved spending bills Tuesday that would cut funding for Vice President Dick Cheney's office, while boosting programs ranging from consumer product safety to rural air service above the White House's budget plan.

In a $21.8 billion bill funding the Treasury Department and other agencies, Senate appropriators also included a provision loosening restrictions on trade with Cuba, which has already earned a veto threat after being included in the House version.

The bill would block Treasury rules barring sales to Cuba and allow individuals to travel to the island nation, under embargo for the last half-century, to sell medical and agricultural products.

But in a rare subcommittee roll-call vote, the panel approved the bill 5-4 with all Republicans opposed, due to Majority Whip Richard Durbin's move to cut funds for Cheney's office.

Durbin, who chairs the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, would withhold the $4.4 million requested for the Office of the Vice President in fiscal 2008 until Cheney complies with an executive order Democrats argue compels him to release classified information as a member of the executive branch.

"The power of Congress is the power of the purse. When it comes to the appropriations process, this is when we speak," said Durbin, who said Cheney's position has become "almost a running comedy routine."

Durbin said he wrote to Cheney's office June 25 and called prior to Tuesday's markup to urge him to reconsider but got no response.

Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Sam Brownback, R-Kan., offered an amendment to strike the provision. It failed on a 5-4 party-line vote, but Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., appeared to have reservations about Durbin's provision and spoke with Brownback after the vote.

Brownback said he will offer his amendment again when the full committee takes up the bill Thursday.

"It is a dangerous precedent for Congress to withhold funds for the vice president's office. If we take this action today, what will it mean for future congresses and future vice presidents?" said Brownback, who is running for his party's 2008 presidential nomination.

Brownback and Durbin agreed on other portions of the bill, including a provision increasing civil and criminal penalties on companies that do business in Sudan in violation of economic sanctions.

The bill funds the Treasury Department at $12.25 billion, with $11.1 billion for the Internal Revenue Service consuming most of that. Senate appropriators would boost the IRS by $544.5 million over the current year, about a 5 percent increase, restoring cuts proposed by President Bush that would have affected taxpayer assistance services.

While a small piece of the bill, Durbin said special attention was paid to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which would get a 10 percent boost over the current year to $70 million, in part to retain staff and investigate products primarily imported from China.

Court security is another winner, with a 9 percent boost, while additional resources are targeted to the Office of National Drug Control Policy to combat methamphetamine abuse.

Durbin called it the "most transparent appropriations bill, covering our jurisdiction, in the history of the United States" in terms of disclosing earmark sponsors, and he also zeroed out earmarks in the federal portion of the D.C. government's budget.

He also noted that of the $1.7 billion in the bill for earmarked projects, 81 percent was requested by the White House. Overall, the bill largely complies with Bush's budget request.

That was not so with a $104.6 billion fiscal 2008 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development bill also approved by a Senate subcommittee Tuesday.

That measure is $4.4 billion above the president's request and "rejects many of the most punitive cuts in housing and transportation investment programs proposed in the president's budget," said Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Even with the increases, Murray's bill merely funds programs at current year levels in many cases. Community Development Block Grants are funded at $3.77 billion, restoring a proposed $735 million cut, while proposed cuts in housing for low-income seniors and the disabled are also restored to current year levels.

The bill also restores a nearly 40 percent cut in Amtrak, providing the passenger rail service a slight increase over the current year to $1.37 billion.

Essential air service to rural communities would receive $110 million, more than doubling the White House request.

Highway funding is the biggest piece of the bill at $40.2 billion, a $631 million increase above the president and the level authorized by the 2005 highway authorization law. That funding, largely provided by gasoline taxes, could potentially decline next year as tax revenues are running dry, Murray said.

The House Appropriations Committee, which provides similar increases for transportation and housing programs, took up its version of the bill Wednesday.

The House panel is also taking up the mammoth Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill, at $151.5 billion the largest of the domestic spending measures. That is a 4.8 percent increase above the current year, and after scoring adjustments funding is actually 6.2 percent above fiscal 2007 and $12 billion above Bush.

Sensing a tough floor fight ahead, as early as next week, roughly 1,000 universities, community groups, labor unions and health advocates with a presence in nearly every district wrote to House members urging support for the bill.

"America cannot sustain its global scientific and economic leadership, national security and citizens' health and well-being without increasing its investment in these critical program areas," the groups wrote.

But not all advocacy groups are happy with the bill drafted by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis. The seniors' lobby AARP wants to see more fundraising for the Social Security Administration.

Arguing the measure's 1.9 percent increase for the National Institutes of Health is not sufficient to keep up with inflation, about 40 other groups -- including the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association -- wrote Obey urging a boost in those areas. The $29.4 billion funding level in the bill "will force cuts in ground-breaking and life-saving research," they wrote.

Others have expressed concern about funding in the bill for state education grants for children with disabilities. At just shy of $11 billion, the House bill keeps the federal matching share at about 17.2 percent, same as the current year.

That share has declined from fiscal 2005, when it was 18.5 percent -- still far short of the 40 percent promised more than a quarter-century ago.

The Senate version would boost special education funds to $11.24 billion, for a 17.65 percent matching share, same as in fiscal 2006, according to a committee report.

House Labor-HHS Appropriations ranking member James Walsh, R-N.Y., plans to offer an amendment to boost the House figure by $335 million, to just above the Senate level.

But Walsh would offset the move by canceling unspent funds in workforce training accounts, as proposed by the administration.

Obey and his Senate counterparts have both rejected the White House proposal. But to oppose Walsh's amendment could put Democrats in a bind, forcing them to choose between training and employment services for dislocated workers and education for disabled children.

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