Bill nixes hiring checks; Filipino vets, mouse safe

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Congress has removed the key check on making sure illegal immigrants aren’t hired by firms getting money from the economic stimulus package, but left in nearly $200 million in spending for Filipino veterans of World War II.

The bill also sliced funding for parks below what either the House or Senate originally proposed, and left out $246 million that had been slated to help Hollywood produce movies. But negotiators put back in provisions that will allow money to go to museums, stadiums and parks - which critics said means the Las Vegas Mob Museum is again eligible for money.

Those are some of the contentious decisions Democrats made in writing a final compromise bill this week. Democrats rushed the bill through final votes in the House and Senate on Friday, denying lawmakers a chance to digest all the decisions before having to vote on the $787 billion package.

Of that $787 billion in spending and tax cuts, 74.2 percent will be disbursed during the next 18 months, just about accomplishing Mr. Obama’s goal of spending 75 percent of the money in that time frame. The bill carves out about $211 billion, or 27 percent, for tax cuts.

Still in the bill is $230 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be used for “operations, research and facilities,” part of which House Republicans said they expect will be used for habitat restoration of the San Francisco Bay Area, including saving the salt marsh harvest mouse. The potential funding was first reported by The Washington Times.

Protecting the mouse has been a pet project of Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, though they did not earmark funds for the project in this bill.

But Republicans called around asking agencies what projects they would be likely to fund with stimulus money, and Republican staffers on the Appropriations Committee said NOAA officials identified the San Francisco Bay Area restoration project as one of its top priorities.

Defending the bill on the House floor, Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and Appropriations Committee chairman, challenged the mouse funds claim, arguing that there’s no specific reference to the mouse money in the bill and that it’s just a potential project.

Mr. Obey, who was the chief spending negotiator for the House team during the reconciliation process with the Senate, disputed other charges by opponents.

“They tell us there is an earmark for high-speed rail. The fact is, there is not. All of the funding in that account is discretionary and will be awarded competitively and the decisions will be made entirely by the Department of Transportation. And the last time I looked, the new Cabinet secretary was a Republican,” he said.

He touted the bill’s money for the National Institutes of Health, the “Make Work Pay” tax breaks and the aid to states to prevent budget cutbacks. He also mocked opponents who criticized waste: “Those are some of the terrible things this bill does.”

Still, with the original House bill at $819 billion and the Senate bill at $838 billion, negotiators had to slash a lot of money to reach the final figure of $787 billion in extra emergency spending over and above the regular appropriations process.

They did not include any money for Pell grants for college students, they reduced money for the Smithsonian to $25 million and they slashed funding for the National Park Service to $750 million. The House had requested $1.8 billion for the parks and the Senate had passed a bill calling for about $800 million.

Dropped earlier in the process were specific line items for contraceptives and for prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, though those items could still be funded under other categories of spending.

But the final bill retains a provision that allows nearly $200 million to be spent on Filipino veterans who fought under U.S. command during World War II - two-thirds of whom don’t live in the U.S. The money was designated last year but wasn’t actually spent because of a dispute over a funding formula. The stimulus bill settles that dispute and spends the money.

Other late decisions added motorcycles and motor homes to the list of vehicles eligible for federal tax breaks, according to the Associated Press.

Like the mouse funds, the Las Vegas Mob Museum is not specifically funded by the bill. But lawmakers said the funds should go to “shovel-ready” projects local officials say can produce jobs - and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman had said a $50 million Mob Museum was a worthy candidate.

The Senate had passed an amendment from Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, that had banned money going to casinos, zoos, golf courses, swimming pools, parks, museums, theaters or highways beautification projects. The final bill retained the ban on gambling establishments, zoos and pools, but removed the prohibition against funding museums, stadiums, arts centers, theaters, parks or highway beautification projects.

“It is ludicrous that politicians in Washington made zero effort to eliminate any wasteful Washington spending to pay for this enormous spending bill,” said Mr. Coburn, who regularly demands that pet projects be cut from spending bills.

On the immigration issue, Democrats removed from the final bill a House-adopted provision that would have required those who received money from the stimulus spending bill to check their new employees against E-Verify, the federal government’s chief tool to weed illegal immigrants out of the work force.

And the E-Verify program could go dark next month after Democratic leaders also removed a provision that would have extended the program, which more than 100,000 companies have signed up to use. E-Verify needs to be reauthorized by March 6.

“It is a simple matter of accountability. If the goal is to create jobs and stimulate the American economy, then is it too much to ask that the jobs go to U.S. citizens and legal immigrant workers?” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

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