Capitol Hill talks yield $1T spending measure

AP News
Posted: Dec 15, 2011 11:18 PM
Capitol Hill talks yield $1T spending measure

Republicans yielded on policy affecting communist Cuba and Democrats gave way on new energy standards for light bulbs to seal an agreement Thursday evening on a massive $1 trillion-plus year-end spending package in time avert a possible government shutdown this weekend.

Under pressure from White House veto threats, House Republicans agreed to drop restrictions on people who visit and send money to relatives in Cuba, while Democrats conceded defeat on a GOP demand to delay energy efficiency standards that critics argued could effectively ban inexpensive incandescent light bulbs. In late stage talks, Democrats also agreed to ban the District of Columbia's government from funding abortions.

These policy issues held up a final agreement on the must-do spending measure for most of the day. It came barely a day after Republicans said they planned to push the 1,200-plus-page legislation through the House with only GOP votes, which seemed like a bluff considering tea party opposition to the measure.

The measure funds 10 Cabinet agencies, awarding a slight increase to the Pentagon and veterans' programs while trimming most other domestic agencies. It drops most policy provisions sought by GOP conservatives.

Thursday's legislation implements the details of cost caps set under the August debt and budget accord between Republicans and President Barack Obama and adds to earlier agency savings enacted in April. It pays for programs ranging from border security to flood control to combating AIDS and famine in Africa.

The measure has bipartisan backing but is likely to encounter resistance from conservative tea party lawmakers seeking far more significant cuts to government agencies.

Days after saying that the measure was wrapped up, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., acknowledged that talks had been reopened, as power lawmakers quarreled over the Cuba provisions and other unresolved issues.

The bill chips away at the Pentagon budget, foreign aid and environmental spending but boosts funding for veterans programs. The Securities and Exchange Commission, responsible for enforcing new regulations under last year's financial overhaul, won a 10 percent budget increase, even as the tax-collecting IRS absorbs more than a 3 percent cut to its budget.

Popular education initiatives for special-needs children and disadvantaged schools were basically frozen and Obama's cherished "Race to the Top" initiative, which provides grants to better-performing schools, would absorb more than a 20 percent cut. The maximum Pell grant for low-income college students would remain at $5,550, but only after major cost-cutting moves that would limit the number of semesters the grants may be received and make income eligibility standards more strict.

Environmentalists scored clear wins in stopping virtually every significant GOP initiative to roll back Environmental Protection Agency rules. Most importantly, industry forces seeking to block new greenhouse gas and clean air rules, as well as a new clean water regulation opposed by mountaintop removal mining interests, were denied. But Republicans succeeded in blocking new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs and won delays to a new Labor Department rule requiring a reduction of coal dust responsible for black lung disease.

Drafted behind closed doors, the proposed bill would provide $115 billion for overseas security operations in Afghanistan and Iraq but give the Pentagon just a 1 percent boost in annual spending not directly related to the wars, though creative accounting such as mixing war funds with the core Defense Department budget is allowing billions of dollars more into Pentagon coffers.

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The Environmental Protection Agency's budget would be cut by 3.5 percent. Foreign aid spending would drop and House lawmakers would absorb a 6 percent cut to their office budgets.

And with tensions plain in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, counterinsurgency aid for Pakistan would be cut to $850 million from Obama's $1.1 billion request. All told, $11.2 billion in emergency foreign aid funding would be provided for counterterrorism, humanitarian aid and training of Iraqi security forces, among other anti-terror activities.

The measure generally consists of relatively small adjustments to thousands of individual programs. Agencies like the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement will get a boost within the Homeland Security Department, while GOP defense hawks won additional funding to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. The troubled, over-budget, next-generation F-35 fighter plane program would be largely protected.

Social conservatives won a ban on government-funded abortions in Washington, D.C., and restored a longstanding ban on funding for needle exchange programs used to prevent the spread of HIV. But efforts to take away federal funding for Planned Parenthood failed, as expected.