House slogs its way through spending bill earmark fights

The House resumed its testy battle over earmarks Tuesday, debating at presstime projects attached to a $31.6 billion Energy and Water Appropriations bill.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., was offering a series of amendments to strike individual projects in the bill -- such as $1 million for Maricopa Community Colleges requested by his home-state colleague, Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz.; and $750,000 for the Alliance for NanoHealth requested by Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas.

Flake called the projects "selective handouts" in a bill that is already $1.1 billion over President Bush's budget request and has drawn a veto threat.

Later Tuesday, the House began considering a $154.2 billion Labor-Health and Human Services measure, which is the largest of the domestic spending bills. House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., was planning to offer an amendment to strike all $282.5 million in earmarks in that bill.

"Frankly, I'm tired of being used as a punching bag," Obey told the House Rules Committee Monday night. Obey had threatened to offer similar amendments to previous spending bills, but in some cases the amendment was ruled out of order because it applied to other appropriations measures as well.

The House has spoken once on the issue -- an amendment by Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., to strike all earmarks from the Financial Services spending bill last month failed on a 372-48 vote, with Obey voting against it.

The fiscal 2008 Labor-HHS bill drew its own formal veto threat Tuesday, which had been expected. Including scoring adjustments such as advance appropriations from the following fiscal year, the measure is nearly $13 billion above Bush's request.

The White House Statement of Administration Policy said because the bill is above the request it does not appear Congress will stay within Bush's overall discretionary spending target of $933 billion. In its present form, "he would veto the bill," the statement said.

Republicans are generally supportive of many of the programs in the bill, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., but feel Democrats should have a lower allocation. "We must take a balanced approach that provides for the general welfare of our nation while reducing the deficit," he said.

Democrats said after factoring in inflation and population growth, the bill is really only a 3 percent increase above the current year and still $2.9 billion below levels funded two years ago.

"It is interesting logic that when you are spending less money than you did two years ago, [that] it is out-of-control spending," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.

While opposing overall spending in the bill, the administration's policy statement also took issue with some of the cuts Obey made, such as $629 million slashed from the Reading First program, which is under investigation for possibly strong-arming local school districts into using textbooks by publishers favored by the administration. The administration also opposes cuts made in its favored initiatives, such as requests for math education and adolescent health promotion programs.

Final passage of the Energy and Water and Labor-HHS measures will mark the seventh and eighth of 12 fiscal 2008 spending bills to move through the House. The chamber is expected to complete work on all 12 by the end of this month, and the House Appropriations Committee will consider the Agriculture spending bill Wednesday. The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee approved its version Tuesday.

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