Senate makes dent in Labor-HHS bill earmarks

The Senate Thursday voted to strip $1 million for a new museum to preserve the legacy of the 1969 Woodstock music festival, handing GOP conservatives a rare victory in their battle against earmarks.

The 52-42 vote came during debate on a $150 billion Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill, which Senate leaders are aiming to wrap up early next week.

Democrats want to complete a conference on the bill by the end of the month and send it to President Bush for an expected veto, arguing they can get enough of a political bounce out of the debate that Bush might be forced to compromise on their overall spending differences.

The vote to kill the Woodstock amendment will make staffers' lives easier in one respect: They are under instructions to cut the overall cost of earmarks in the bill by 40 percent from the nearly $1.2 billion appropriated in fiscal 2005, the last year in which there were Labor-HHS earmarks.

The roughly $690 million tentatively allocated for House-Senate earmarks does not quite match the 50 percent cut in the House-passed version, as called for by Bush.

It still amounts to less than 0.5 percent of the overall funding in the bill, and represents a concession on the part of Senate appropriators, who had proposed to set aside a bigger slice of the bill for earmarks.

Still, eliminating another senator's pet project -- in this case a request from New York Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- is no small thing in the traditionally clubby Senate.

Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, legendary for his earmarking prowess, was visibly shaken as he voted to strip the earmark, and even a Democratic appropriator, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, crossed the aisle to back the amendment.

In all, five Democrats voted in favor of the amendment: Landrieu, Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jim Webb of Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin.

Of those, only McCaskill and Feingold do not request their own earmarks.

The amendment's lead sponsor, Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona, is not pure in that regard.

Kyl secured $1 million in Labor-HHS earmarks: $500,000 for St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix to purchase a state-of-the-art mobile clinic to provide prenatal care to low-income women, and $500,000 to help the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute buy laboratory equipment.

"Funds should be judged on their individual merits," a Kyl spokesman said, and on that front he and co-sponsor Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., were able to exploit a number of factors -- including a cultural divide between social conservatives and the "hippie" generation.

Set to open next spring, the new museum at the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center will include "immersive exhibits to tell the story of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, its historical context and its influence on American culture," according to its architects' Web site. "The interpretation extends throughout the 37 acres of the original Yasgur Farm and spills out -- as did the 1969 concertgoers -- into hundreds of surrounding acres to recall the magic that was created at this iconic site."

Kyl and Coburn proposed shifting the money for the project to the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant program, which has broad support.

Finally, the earmark had been under scrutiny because the head of the foundation sponsoring the museum project, Alan Gerry, donated money to the Clinton and Schumer campaigns.

Also Thursday, the Senate voted to set aside $5 million to combat a recent deadly staph infection outbreak, add $2 million for the Education Department's Underground Railroad program, and $10 million for mine-safety programs, offset by a cut to government-travel expenses.

By a 52-41 vote, the Senate rejected, 52-41, a proposal by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to stop funding health clinics and providers of reproductive health services if they use money from nonfederal sources to perform abortions.

The Senate movement comes as Democrats wrestle with a strategy for handling the 12 fiscal 2008 appropriations bills, none of which have been signed and which would collectively spend $23 billion more than Bush wants.

The American Legion wrote Thursday to congressional leaders urging them to make the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill -- which Bush says he will sign and has already passed both chambers -- the first to go to Bush's desk rather than the Labor-HHS bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday "at this stage, I don't think we're going to combine" appropriations bills, preferring to send them to Bush one at a time.

But some Democrats view the veterans' measure as leverage for their other priorities, even calculating that if Bush vetoes the bill over unrelated spending they attach, it could be damaging politically to Bush and his GOP backers.

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