Despite regrets, panels approve Labor-HHS spending bills

After passionate debates on the cost of tax cuts and the hiring practices of faith-based organizations, the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday reported out its $138 billion fiscal 2004 Labor-HHS spending bill on a straight party-line 33-23 vote.

The bill funds a vast array of social programs devoted to education, health care, job training and medical research, and represents a slight increase over President Bush's $137.99 billion fiscal 2004 request, and a more than $5 billion jump from the fiscal 2003 level of $132.4 billion.

But Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., continued his arguments that the bill falls short of funding many promises made in the fiscal 2004 budget resolution in order to pay for the recently enacted $353 billion tax cut. Obey's two amendments to redirect money from the tax cut that millionaires would get to increase spending on programs across the bill and to reinsuring children who have lost their health insurance lost by party-line votes of 35-28 and 35-29.

But it was the amendment by Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, concerning the hiring practices of federally funded faith-based groups that sparked the most heated debate. The Edwards amendment was ultimately defeated 32-27, with GOP Reps. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania voting with a united Democratic bloc.

Meanwhile, the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee approved its version of the Labor-HHS spending bill and sent it on to the full Appropriations panel, where it is likely to be taken up Thursday afternoon. The bill's price tag-$137.6 billion-is $445 million below the companion House bill and $389 million under President Bush's budget request.

Even Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., acknowledged that many education, healthcare, research and worker training programs were underfunded. Specter said the subcommittee "did the best it could given the limitations on us" imposed by the fiscal 2004 budget resolution. The bill, in many respects, he said, is "not remotely satisfactory."

Some Democrats agreed. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., noted that the bill fell $8.7 billion short of what had been earlier promised in the president's "No Child Left Behind" law that calls for higher teacher and pupil standards nationwide in secondary and elementary education. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, defended the bill's contents. He reminded the panel that education spending since 1996 has been increased by 107 percent. Budget cutbacks for next year, Craig said, were necessitated by a flat economy.