House breaks old taboos in cutting spree; Murtha’s project taken off dole

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, right, talks with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, as they testified before the House Armed Services Committee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)Defense Secretary Robert Gates, right, talks with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, as they testified before the House Armed Services Committee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

While he was alive, Rep. John P. Murtha was a prince of pork, directing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars back to his southwestern Pennsylvania district. But Wednesday, the House took the first step to turn off the spigot, voting overwhelmingly to defund the National Drug Intelligence Center that Murtha had the government build in his hometown.

And that was just the beginning.

In the first freewheeling spending debate the House has held in years, Democrats and Republicans teamed up to take on entrenched defense interests and to rewrite a GOP 2011 spending bill to cut about $800 million from NASA and from homeland security research and development, and send the savings to fund local police and firefighters.

The cuts thrilled budget hawks, who said the House was breaking decades-long taboos to go after defense spending, while Democrats crowed over adding money back to fund first responders, saying it went part of the way toward fixing the GOP’s bill.

“Throwing police and firefighters off the job isn’t going to solve the deficit,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “But the irresponsible Republican spending bill would still destroy 800,000 private- and public-sector jobs and fails to invest in the future.”

The 359-page spending bill is designed to fund the government through the end of fiscal 2011, which began Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30. Democrats failed to pass a budget or the dozen annual spending bills last year, leaving the government operating on a stopgap measure that expires March 4.

The bill that House Republican leaders proposed would cut about $60 billion from 2010 discretionary spending, with the cuts coming heavily from the domestic side of the ledger.

On Wednesday, lawmakers took a whack at defense spending as well, using a dramatic 233-198 vote to cut $450 million for a jet fighter engine that the Pentagon has tried to kill for years, but which Congress had consistently backed — until this week.

“The Pentagon has said repeatedly that they do not want it and do not need it, and the American taxpayers certainly cannot afford it,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, the Florida Republican who fought to remove the spending.

The program in question is an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Those who support the money say having two separate production lines, the primary one by Pratt & Whitney and an alternate by General Electric and Rolls-Royce, will foster competition, which will mean lower total costs and better quality in the long run. But the Pentagon said it is confident that having a single contractor will end up saving the government money.

The vote broke down largely along geographic lines, with all members from the Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana delegations voting to back the second engine, and the delegations from Connecticut, Wisconsin and Kansas all voting to stop the funds.

Less significant dollarwise, but no less important as a break with the past, was the vote on the drug intelligence center (NDIC) in Pennsylvania, which Murtha had the government build in the early 1990s.

Since then, more than a half-billion dollars has been spent on the center, which Murtha jealously guarded, beating back repeated efforts to kill the program.

In one instance in 2007, Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who tried to cancel the funding, said Murtha confronted him and threatened to block any defense earmarks Mr. Rogers might request, “now and forever.”

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