By Peter Cohn
July 13, 2007It was a good day Thursday for the National Rifle Association and Vice President Cheney, as Democratic-controlled spending panels defeated efforts to loosen restrictions on gun sales information and to block funding for Cheney's office.
Despite the setbacks, House and Senate Appropriations panels advanced measures that spend billions more than President Bush requested for local law enforcement, transportation infrastructure and low-income housing.
Democrats are headed for a veto fight with Bush in the fall over spending, and bills that have reached the floor in the House have been unable to win veto-proof majorities.
They are also girding for more politically charged fights that threaten to drag out the stalemate. The bill funding the Justice Department promises to be a battleground over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' conduct with regard to the U.S. attorney firings and other issues.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., did not offer an amendment on Justice's domestic wiretapping program, but said the issue was bound to crop up sooner or later.
"The fundamental obligation of any administration is to itself abide by the law, especially when it is snooping into the affairs of private individuals," Obey said. "This Justice Department has a miserable track record with respect to that and I think the Congress has an obligation either at this point or within the next several months to act on our obligation to deal with this outrageous abuse of law enforcement power."
The House Appropriations Committee approved a $53.6 billion Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill Thursday -- $2.3 billion above the White House request -- which served as the backdrop for the fight over gun-sales information.
Democrats from urban areas where gun violence is prevalent failed to weaken a provision authored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., included in the annual spending bill since 2003 that prevented sharing information on gun sales stockpiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives outside of the federal law-enforcement community.
Tiahrt and the NRA, along with some police organizations, argue the restrictions protect the privacy of law-abiding gun owners and the identities of police and others involved in investigations.
"Please, can we not take away the protection for those that protect us?" asked Tiahrt.
An attempt by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., to loosen the data restrictions, but redact any information on identities of police or other investigators was defeated, 40-26, with Democrats from rural areas crossing the aisle to defeat it.
Backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other mayors and gun-control advocates, opponents of the Tiahrt provision said it has hampered local investigators' access to information necessary to trace handguns sold by the small percentage of gun dealers selling firearms illegally.
"In every system you have some people who skirt the law, who disrespect the law. This amendment is aimed at those 1 percent of gun dealers who deliberately, we think unconscionably, are the source of the guns used in the majority of these crimes," said Rep. James Moran, D-Va., whose attempt to strike the provision altogether failed on a voice vote.
Tiahrt called the amendment dubious and an "affront and an attack on legal ownership of firearms in America." He said he revised the language in the bill to ensure local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors would have access to gun-sales information important to criminal investigations.
Obey and Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., opposed the Kennedy and Moran amendments.
Obey said he wished he could vote against both the NRA and Bloomberg and his allies, whom he said had acted like "bullies" and "thugs" in their lobbying efforts.
The NRA endorsed Obey's opponent last year and Bloomberg representatives had threatened to run ads against him at home if he supported the Tiahrt measure, Obey said.
Obey complained that emotional issues like guns were diverting attention from the substance of the underlying bill, including $3.165 billion for state and local law enforcement, a 53 percent boost over the president's request.
Climate change activities would receive $1.9 billion in the bill, while science agencies are funded at $28 billion, roughly $1 billion more than the president requested.
In the Senate Appropriations Committee, the panel approved an amendment by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to strike language in the Financial Services Appropriations bill that would have barred funding for Cheney's office until he complies with an executive order Democrats argue compels him to provide information on classified data.
The vote was 15-14 after Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., switched his position from earlier in the week and backed Brownback after a letter from White House Counsel Fred Fielding Thursday clarified the administration's position.
Brownback said that cutting off the vice president's funding might set a precedent for cutting off Supreme Court funds when they made a decision lawmakers oppose.
"There is a separation of powers that has served us well, and this is a line we should not cross," Brownback said.
The underlying spending bill, a $21.8 billion bill funding the Treasury Department, District of Columbia, Small Business Administration and other agencies was approved unanimously.
Though it dodged one veto threat with removal of the Cheney language, there is another hanging over it over language loosening restrictions on trade with Cuba.
The Senate panel also approved a $104.6 billion Transportation-Housing and Urban Development spending bill, which is $4.4 billion above the president's request.
By Peter Cohn
July 13, 2007