House passes Labor-HHS spending bill with veto threat looming

President Bush took aim at the Democratic-controlled Congress over spending Thursday, as the House approved the appropriations bill representing the starkest contrast between his and their budget priorities.

The bill passed on a 276-140 margin, not enough to demonstrate the two-thirds of those present and voting to override the veto Bush has threatened.

At $154.2 billion in total discretionary spending, the fiscal 2008 Labor-Health and Human Services measure is $12.5 billion, or 8.8 percent, more than Bush requested.

That is the largest difference between Bush and the Democrats among the 12 spending bills, with increases over the president's request directed to student aid, health care for the uninsured, worker training and other popular initiatives.

Overall, Democrats would spend roughly $23 billion more than Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2008, about a 2.5 percent difference.

Visiting Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Bush told a crowd that Democrats would raise taxes on small businesses to pay for the additional spending, and that he would veto any attempt to do so.

"I've got a better idea that I want to share with you and share with the American people. And that is, the best way to balance the budget is to keep taxes low, growing the economy, which will yield more tax revenue into the economy," Bush said. "And it works, so long as you hold spending down."

The Labor-HHS bill has traditionally enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the House, with its funding for biomedical research, low-income heating and cooling subsidies, education for disabled children and community service block grants providing basic services for the poor and elderly appealing to Republicans and Democrats.

One of the bill's chief backers was Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member James Walsh, R-N.Y., a former social worker and longtime proponent of bigger federal investments in public works, education and health care.

But this year's atmosphere is different, and with GOP leaders seeking to draw sharp distinctions between their party and the Democrats on fiscal matters, they were able to largely keep their troops in line.

Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, was confident that in the end, Republicans could sustain a veto, noting a number of absences on his side on Thursday's vote. "We have other members who while they may have voted 'yes' here, will vote to sustain a veto. I'm not worried about it," he said.

Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., had a different take. "It was a damn good vote," he said. "With all of the Sturm und Drang, they couldn't find anything in the bill that they wanted to change [in the GOP motion to recommit]. I think that demonstrates that they think it's a pretty good doggone bill."

Democrats argue Bush's budget would have cut social services and education programs by $7.6 billion below current year levels when accounting for inflation and population growth.

By the same standards, the Democrats' bill contains 3 percent more spending than the current year and is still shy of levels appropriated two years ago.

"This bill is not a matter of accounting. This bill is not a matter of political theory or political party platforms. This bill, more than any other, meets the needs of all members of society that are not among the most connected or the most privileged," Obey said on the floor. "There is a reason why there were no votes expressed in opposition in committee: That's because this is the people's bill."

The measure provides healthy boosts over the current year for programs aimed at increasing access to health care for the uninsured.

That includes a 10 percent hike, to $200 million, for community health centers providing primary and dental care in underserved areas, expanding access to about 1 million more needy patients.

Programs aimed at discouraging women from having abortions, such as infant adoption awareness, abstinence education and domestic violence prevention would see a 5 percent increase above the current year, averting cuts proposed by Bush.

Education programs under Bush's signature No Child Left Behind law would see an 8.6 percent increase above this year, or about double the increase Bush sought.

That includes a 14.7 percent boost -- the largest ever -- for Title I assistance to low-income children.

Pell Grants for about 5.5 million college students -- 79 percent of which come from families that have annual family incomes of $30,000 or less, according to the committee -- would see a 14.1 percent boost, enough to raise the maximum grant to $4,700.

The bill must go to conference with the Senate, which might not consider it on the floor until October, before being sent to Bush for his expected veto.

At that rate, it increases the likelihood that the Labor-HHS bill will run out of time to move on its own and simply be wrapped into a year-end omnibus package, some Democrats privately acknowledge.

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