Senate Republicans on Thursday rejected cutting agency budgets below levels agreed to in last summer's budget and debt pact with President Barack Obama as a key committee kicked off action on a round of 12 annual spending bills totaling more than $1.1 trillion.
It's a break with their GOP counterparts in the tea party-flavored House, who are moving ahead with bills that ignore the budget pact by cutting $19 billion from annual agency budgets and shifting further money from domestic programs to the Pentagon.
The House GOP moves caused the White House on Wednesday to vow to veto spending bills unless GOP leaders promise to add back the money they're cutting from programs like education and housing.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was among those breaking ways with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in supporting the budget pact spending levels in a Senate Appropriations Committee vote. The panel also gave overwhelming 28-1 approval to spending bills setting the budgets for agencies like NASA, the FBI and programs ranging from air traffic control to scientific research.
The Senate panel, along with its House counterpart, is getting off to an unusually early start to the annual round of appropriations bills in hopes of getting the politically shaky process back on track. Foot-tall omnibus measures have been the norm in recent years as the House and Senate have failed to pass the 12 bills separately under the traditional rules.
Both McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., say they want to try to restore the broken appropriations process, but plenty of hurdles are in their way, not the least of which are stalling tactics by conservatives and politically inspired amendments that Democrats may not want to vote on.
But the biggest obstacle remains the House, where the decision to break with the budget accord means that some measures are unlikely to advance because of Democratic opposition. The pragmatic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has started off on a bipartisan note by forestalling major cuts to energy and water development programs and the departments of Commerce and Justice, in the opening round of bills.
Still, GOP cuts to education, housing, Amtrak and other programs will guarantee battles with Democrats and the White House as the summer wears on.
Democrats, however, went along Thursday with a House measure funding the Commerce and Justice departments, science programs and NASA in a subcommittee vote, despite cuts to police hiring grants that Democrats have long fought for. Top Appropriations Committee Democrat Norm Dicks of Washington said he'll try to support bills that reflect spending levels consistent with the budget accord _ which set a cap of $1.047 trillion for agency budgets. War costs add almost $100 billion more.
"When we have agreement on the bill ... and we're close to what it would be at $1.047 trillion, we'll be supportive," Dicks said.
In the Senate, Thursday's session was bipartisan throughout as the Appropriations panel approved two bills. The FBI won a modest budget increase while the NASA budget was essentially frozen. The money-losing Amtrak rail system would receive $1.6 billion and the Washington, D.C., Metro transit system would receive a $150 million subsidy.
A much-criticized program that subsidizes airlines serving rural airports would receive a 10 percent budget boost to $214 million. But the Transportation Department has begun cutting off airports like Alamogodo, N.M., where subsidies exceed $1,000 per passenger. Ely, Nev., also looks likely to lose air service used by an average 1.4 people a day.
At a House panel session Thursday morning, lawmakers approved a NASA budget of $17.6 billion, slightly less than current spending. Rogers, the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee, seemed to reveal some skepticism about the agency, now that the shuttle program has ended.
"What is the mission of NASA," Rogers asked.