Feb 01 2007

Sizable spending bill sweeps House

Associated Press

By ANDREW TAYLOR

 

A must-pass bill covering about one-sixth of the federal budget swept through the House on Wednesday. A sizable chunk of Republicans joined virtually all Democrats in approving spending increases for education, veterans and the AIDS battle in Africa.

The 286-140 vote, with 57 Republicans voting in favor, was a pleasant surprise for Democrats who expected far less GOP support. While Alabama's two Democrats voted for the final bill, all five Republicans opposed it.

The bill had much to please the rank and file, including Republican moderates, even though it contained no pet projects for their districts. Such individual earmarks have been criticized as wasteful and, theoretically, banned from the bill.

"The content is a heck of a lot better than most expected we'd come up with," said the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

Earmarking has been especially generous to Alabama, so the impact on the state could be significant. Dozens of projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars were scattered throughout the original bills last year, and now they're gone. Cities and colleges and other recipients will now have to apply for the grants and compete with others for funding.

UAB, for example, was in line for a total of $30 million to continue construction of the biomedical research complex named for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

"Senator Shelby will always advocate on behalf of Alabama's colleges and universities during a competitive grant process," said his spokesman, Katie Boyd.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, said he's sorry to lose $1.5 million for an Interstate 65 interchange in Cullman and $1 million for an extension of I-565 in Gadsden.

"Most of the decisions made now on where the money is spent will be made by people here in Washington, inside the beltway, who really don't know the best place to put this money," Aderholt said.

The White House has signaled that President Bush would sign the bill despite cuts to his requests for NASA, foreign aid and communities affected by the latest round of military base closings.

But numerous agencies are feeling the crunch from operating for four months at or below last year's levels. So the administration was eager for relief for the FBI, the Census Bureau and the Veterans Affairs Department and others.

Republicans also struggled to find unity. Conservatives pressed for a budget freeze to save about $6 billion.

Democrats were not entirely pleased with the bill. Living within last year's budget cap set by Bush - before Democrats won control of Capitol Hill in the November elections - meant they could not be as generous as they would have liked.

Democrats, nonetheless, provided increases for underperforming schools, health research, and grants to state and local law enforcement agencies.

They were especially pleased with a $260 boost, to $4,310, in the maximum Pell Grant for low-income college students, and with a 40 percent increase, to $4.5 billion, for fighting AIDS and tuberculosis overseas.