Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill faces hurdles

There is something for nearly everyone in the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill. Yet it faces just as many hurdles this year -- if not more -- as it has in its troubled recent history.

During the last decade it has been among the most nettlesome of the annual spending bills. In fact, during the last decade, the Senate has only been able to pass the measure on its own three times, most recently in fiscal 2006. "It has always been a problem bill," said one former Appropriations aide.

Even for the Senate, which has major structural problems in passing appropriations bills simply because of the time they take, that is a poor record. Already, some observers are betting it will not see the light of day on the Senate floor any time soon.

Adding to the bill's problems, President Bush is threatening to veto every fiscal 2008 spending bill that exceeds his requests, and the Commerce-Justice-Science bill benefits from generous increases in both chambers.

But Democrats are aiming for some momentum by spreading money around to programs popular on both sides of the aisle.

House and Senate versions contain major pieces devoted to law enforcement, violent crime and counterterrorism.

Big increases are in line for the space program and scientific research, two bedrocks of Republican budgets in recent years.

Lawmakers from coastal areas will benefit from money for oceans and fisheries, which are also heavily earmarked accounts.

The $54.4 billion Senate version approved in committee before the Independence Day recess is nearly $3.2 billion above Bush's request, while the House Appropriations Committee Thursday will take up a bill that is $2.3 billion over the request.

On average, the bills would boost programs within their purview by around 7 percent above fiscal 2007.

Democrats in both chambers have devoted the most additional resources to law enforcement programs.

Of the total $2.3 billion House increase above the president's budget, $1.7 billion is devoted to state and local law enforcement. That level simply restores funding to levels appropriated in fiscal 2004, according to committee Democrats, but erases a $1.4 billion cut proposed by Bush.

Of particular importance to Republican lawmakers from rural districts is funding to combat methamphetamine abuse.

The House bill earmarks $21.3 million for methamphetamine enforcement along the Southwest border, $20.6 million for mobile Drug Enforcement Administration teams targeting meth labs, and $85 million to assist local police forces in combating meth.

NASA, another Republican favorite, would receive $17.6 billion in the House bill, a $290 million boost over the president.

"You've got two things, law enforcement and space, that our guys care about. But do they care about it enough to buck the president? Good question," said one former GOP aide.

The measure has gone through several jurisdictional changes in recent years, lending to its turmoil.

Gone is the State Department, for example, which attracted controversy due to United Nations funding and other matters. But it also served to relieve pressure on the floor, being a convenient account for members to tap to fund increases for their favored law enforcement programs.

Last year, House members simply raided Justice Department administrative accounts instead, causing major problems for agency management when it came time to pass a continuing resolution.

NASA found a home in the bill as a result of the Republican restructuring of the Appropriations subcommittees in 2005, led by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose district abutted the Johnson Space Center and who wanted to protect the space program from having to compete for funds with veterans' programs.

Along with the National Science Foundation, the two agencies are widely popular with Republicans and Democrats alike, making it hard for members to target them for offsets -- more so than the State Department, which has less of a constituency.

The measures still contain copious amounts of earmarks, the popular local projects used to grease the skids for contentious spending measures.

The Senate bill approved in committee earmarks numerous accounts ranging from the International Trade Administration to grants to local police forces although, all told, earmarks are cut one-third from the fiscal 2006 enacted levels of roughly $1.3 billion.

The House Appropriations Committee later this week will unveil its bill, which is expected to cut earmarks in half from two years ago but still spread plenty around to both sides of the aisle.

The bill also devotes additional resources to legal aid to the poor and to address climate change; while geared towards traditional Democratic constituencies, the funding could prove attractive to some GOP moderates.

House Republican leaders say they will be able to sustain a veto of even the most politically popular spending bills.

The Homeland Security spending bill drew 150 "no" votes because of its 13.6 percent boost over the current year, $2.1 billion more than Bush requested.

"If members are willing to vote against and sustain a veto on homeland security, that means they're willing to sustain a veto on pretty much any bill," a GOP leadership aide said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced Monday he would attempt to pass the Senate's version of the Homeland Security measure later this month, suggesting that bill might be the first to reach Bush's desk.

Democrats are calculating that the recent spate of terrorist plots might be enough to force Bush's hand and that of Republicans in Congress.

But despite the Commerce-Justice-Science measure's focus on law enforcement and counterterrorism activities -- the Senate bill funds the FBI at $6.6 billion, a $280 million boost above fiscal 2007, including increases to hire agents, improve intelligence and boost detection of weapons of mass destruction -- it does not have the same political momentum.

It also might be a magnet for gun-related legislation in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings and efforts to gut Attorney General Gonzales' authority in light of the U.S. attorneys investigation, among other riders that could slow it down.

"C-J-S has never sailed through, ever. It's just such a complicated bill," a former Appropriations aide said.

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