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."
Republicans charged that Murtha violated House rules by suggesting the quid pro quo, but Democrats, who ran the chamber at the time, defeated a resolution that would have reprimanded the longtime lawmaker.
Murtha died last year, and the NDIC's opponents seized their chance this week.
Rep. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who had been gunning for the NDIC spending for years, said the end of earmarks meant power brokers lost the ability to trade support for pet spending projects among themselves. Without that sort of leverage, he said, rank-and-file lawmakers were free to vote their own way.
"With Murtha gone and the fact that there are no earmarks, there's no logrolling now. That makes all the difference," Mr. Flake said.
His amendment to cut $34 million, essentially ending the center, passed by a vote of 262-169.
Rep. Mark Critz, the Democrat who won Murtha's seat, had sent a letter to colleagues urging them to protect the NDIC. He said there's no other place in the federal government that provides the kind of assistance the center does.
"Without NDIC, the Department of Justice's capability to identify strategic trafficking trends would be diminished as would its ability to recognize, trace, and break the link between trafficking and terrorism," he wrote. "If the NDIC were to be shut down or significantly cut, we would be forced to spend more money to build the same capacity and resources somewhere else."
The NDIC employs 237 people full time, of which 225 work in Johnstown.
Debate on the overall spending bill is scheduled to continue Thursday in the House. Its passage is expected, but the measure then would go to the Senate, where majority Democrats are likely to write their own bill.
Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, said he would try to add back the money for the NDIC when the bill reaches his chamber.
Even if the House Republicans' bill reaches the White House, President Obama said this week, he will veto it. He said cutting government spending could cost jobs and that Republicans' cuts also could weaken national security.
© Copyright 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.