House passes energy and water bill with veto-proof margin

The House passed a $31.6 billion bill funding the Energy Department and water infrastructure projects on a 312-112 vote, a comfortable veto-proof margin that represents the first cracks in GOP spending unity.

The bill is only the preliminary round of a fight that might last well into the winter, and Democrats face a far bigger challenge later this week when the House votes on the Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill. At $154.2 billion in discretionary spending, it is roughly $12.5 billion above President Bush's request and drew a veto threat Tuesday.

"I am pleased that many Republicans voted to support the Energy and Water Appropriations bill. I am hopeful that they will follow suit later in the week and support the Labor, Health and Education bill, which Democrats crafted in a bipartisan way and is deserving of their support," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement.

To woo GOP backing, Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., boosted abstinence education programs while eschewing abortion policy riders.

Proposed cuts to rural health programs are rejected; low-income energy subsidies are increased by 23 percent over the current year and the federal contribution to educating children with disabilities would rise after declining for the past two years.

"This bill, more than any other, determines how willing we are to make the investments necessary to assure the future strength of this country and its working families," Obey said on the floor. Aides and lobbyists said Obey and Democratic leaders have work to do to demonstrate a veto-proof majority on the Labor-HHS measure.

Part of the problem is that outside interest groups are split. Community service organizations, teachers' unions, universities and health centers are lobbying in support of the bill. But the academic community is split, supporting the bill's 14.1 percent increase for Pell Grants to lower-income undergraduates but urging more funding for the National Institutes of Health, in line for a less-generous 1.9 percent boost.

Biomedical research stakeholders such as the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association have been openly critical of the legislation in that regard.

The bill still contains funding boosts that might prove attractive to Republicans, including some moderates who have pledged to sustain Bush vetoes.

"I basically like what's in this bill," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "I'm boxing myself in. I'm going to have to sort it all out," said Shays, who added his major complaint was that the Labor-HHS bill does not spend enough money -- in this case on the AmeriCorps volunteer service program.

The fiscal 2008 Energy and Water bill is the seventh of 12 to pass the House.

Five of those have been threatened with vetoes by Bush over spending levels in excess of his requests, or for policy reasons such as abortion and trade with Cuba. On four of those, Republicans demonstrated they have the votes to sustain a veto.

But the popular Energy and Water bill, which is $1.1 billion above the president's request, easily eclipsed the 290 votes necessary for a veto-proof majority.

The measure "demonstrates the broad bipartisan support for this legislation's efforts to confront the energy crisis, reduce gas prices, and become more energy independent," said Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Peter Visclosky, D-Ind.

The bill steers hefty increases to energy efficiency and renewable energy research, for a total of $3 billion devoted to addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Army Corps of Engineers budget, with its water projects sprinkled throughout nearly every member's district, receives a 4.6 percent boost above the current year.

Nuclear weapons research is cut 6.3 percent from this year, while efforts to secure loose nuclear materials and other non-proliferation efforts would see a 74 percent increase.

Republicans downplayed the strong bipartisan vote.

They argued that at the end of the process, they will remain firm with 146 votes to sustain any Bush veto as demonstrated by a letter earlier this year.

"That was true when we sent the President the veto letter and it's true now," a GOP leadership aide said.

It might be easier for GOP leaders to sustain a veto if most of the spending bills are wrapped into a giant year-end omnibus package, as many Republicans suspect. Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chided Democrats in both chambers, the slower-moving Senate in particular, for not moving quick enough to pass individual bills.

"Once again, the Senate is showing absolutely no inclination or ability toward moving appropriations bills, setting up the inevitable end-of-the year omnibus strategy," Lewis said. "And, mark my words, not only will most of our appropriations bills end up in an omnibus, it will be a well-adorned Christmas tree, filled with plenty of legislative goodies, perfectly timed to coincide with the holidays."

Sensing that the Senate's pace might provoke such an outcome, Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., delivered an impassioned speech at Tuesday's closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting urging action on appropriations bills following the Iraq debate.

"These bills represent our core Democratic priorities. We should be trumpeting their good work, not hiding them away," Byrd said in his remarks, a copy of which was obtained by CongressDaily. "These bills will help to educate our children, defend the nation, care for our veterans, and promote a competitive economy. By taking the bills to the floor, we can win by highlighting the failed policies contained in the president's budget."

Sources said Byrd received a standing ovation, and was joined by others including State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in urging movement on appropriations.

Leahy said his $34.2 billion bill was $700 million below the Bush request, according to an aide familiar with the meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said the Homeland Security bill will come to the floor this month, but it is competing with other legislation, including higher education and State Children's Health Insurance Program bills. "No decisions yet" on order of consideration, a Reid spokesman said.

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