Labor-HHS, transportation spending bills advance

The House Appropriations Committee approved the largest of the annual domestic spending measures Wednesday, sending two bills totaling more than $700 billion in overall spending to the House floor.

The bills fund housing and health care for the poor and sick, education for disabled children, aid for laid-off workers, highway improvements, air safety and urban renewal. Hundreds and hundreds of earmarks are included in the Labor-Health and Human Services and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development measures for hospitals, schools, roads, airports, parks and buildings in nearly every House member's district.

The bills also overshoot President Bush's spending targets for fiscal 2008 by $16 billion, which will surely result in a veto fight lasting well into the fall.

"Tax-and-spend policies are policies of the past, and I'm going to use my veto to keep it that way," Bush said Wednesday upon the release of new estimates showing a modest improvement in the budget deficit.

Democrats said putting aside Defense and Homeland Security spending, after accounting for inflation, all other spending would only rise 1.4 percent above the current year under their budget plan.

At the same time, overall spending has risen an average 9 percent per year during the Bush administration, according to House Budget Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., calling fiscal restraint "another mission that's not yet accomplished."

The $607 billion Labor-HHS bill will represent a major test on the floor next week.

"It's important for all of us to know that all of these programs have grown by $85 billion in a little more than a decade," said Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. "By anybody's evaluation, that's a sizable adjustment in the federal commitment, so sooner or later, we all must recognize that someone will bear the burden."

Most of the funds in the Labor-HHS bill go toward mandatory programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and Trade Adjustment Assistance, which would increase $54.3 billion above the current year -- a 13.5 percent hike.

The discretionary portion of the bill contains $153.7 billion, a 6.2 percent increase above this year. "We cannot disinvest in the country's future without creating the kind of future no one wants," said Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

Some Republicans applauded the bill. "If I was chairman and I had this allocation, I'm not sure I would have done anything different," said Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member James Walsh, R-N.Y.

The bill increases spending on health care for the uninsured by 9 percent over the current year and Bush's request, to more than $6.4 billion. That includes a 10 percent boost, to $2.2 billion, for community health centers, expanding services to 1 million more low-income patients.

For K-12 education, $37.9 billion is included, a 7 percent boost over the current year, including $12.3 billion for special education for disabled children after Obey accepted an amendment by Walsh providing a $335 million boost.

A total of $19 billion is included for student financial aid, a 12.4 percent hike, including $2 billion more to boost the maximum Pell Grant to $4,700.

For worker training, $7.6 billion is included, a 1.4 percent increase over the current year but $1.5 billion, or 24 percent, above the Bush request.

Another $1.1 billion is included to combat a possible pandemic flu outbreak, and the bill restores proposed cuts in low-income heating and cooling assistance as well as block grants to low-income communities to provide basic services like child care and nutrition.

Earmarks in the bill are cut in half from two years ago, allotting $565 million, or 0.4 percent of the total discretionary funds in the bill.

Projects range in size from $30,000 for Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill., to study childhood obesity, requested by Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., to $2 million for City College of New York for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service. The latter was requested by the project's namesake, Ways and Means Chairman Rangel.

The $104.4 billion fiscal 2008 Transportation-HUD bill, like the version the Senate Appropriations Committee is taking up, in many cases simply strives to make up proposed cuts in Bush's budget, according to the bill's manager.

"We have restored the president's deepest cuts and ... tried to make our core programs whole," said House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Olver, D-Mass.

"In its current form, it's a bill that I can support. It looks very much like the bills that we have approved in the prior two years," said Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Joseph Knollenberg, R-Mich. "Crafting this bill is not for the faint of heart," he added.

The bill tries to strike a balance by fully funding highway and transit guarantees, which might cause problems next year, as gasoline tax revenues are projected to be $4 billion in the red.

It would also reject cuts to Amtrak and rural air service, while boosting housing programs by 5.5 percent over the current year.

The measure also contains about $700 million in member-requested earmarks. There are nearly 500 individual community development projects for senior centers, kitchens, streetscape improvements, museums, parks and theaters.

There are also hundreds of airport, highway, bus, ferry, and transit projects, the largest being a $20 million Metro extension to Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

Sponsors will not be listed until the committee files the report for floor debate, likely the week after next.

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