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In House debate, pet projects euthanized

Even Boehner, Pelosi not spared

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After more than 100 votes in four days, the lesson from last week's spending debate in the House is that nobody's pet projects are safe anymore.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, watched lawmakers vote to defund a military project that pumps millions of dollars into his district, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, saw her colleagues vote to end federal funding for a park in her San Francisco congressional district.

President Obama also took some shots to the chin in the bill known as a continuing resolution — or "CR" in Capitol Hill-speak. Lawmakers opposed his environmental agenda and an overwhelming bipartisan majority vote to block his administration's rules designed to clamp down on for-profit schools.

In the span of one week, the House probably took votes on as many big issues as it did in the entire last Congress, including the war in Afghanistan, health care, environmental regulations, the extent of federal power, and whether the Defense Department should be sponsoring NASCAR race teams.

"Hundreds of amendments were considered, the debate offered everyone a chance to be heard, and the legislation now contains changes that reflect the many varied interests of families, communities and businesses across the country," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, Kentucky Republican, who ran the floor for much of the epic proceedings.

The spending bill passed by a 235-189 vote early Saturday after a four-day slog when House members filed 584 amendments, held recorded votes on about 100 amendments and passed 70 of them, including repeated votes to defund special projects that have been protected for years by senior lawmakers.

The measure funds the government for the rest of fiscal year 2011.

But with Mr. Obama's veto threat and with the Democrat-led Senate unlikely to accept the overall level of cuts, observers said, the process may be the most important thing to come out of the House debate.

Mrs. Pelosi, now the House minority leader, said the host of amendments didn't advance job creation.

"It's interesting, but it's not what needs to happen," the California Democrat said. "It would be important for the Republicans to get serious about what their priorities are, and not to bring, what, 500 amendments to the table."

Still, freed from tight debate rules for the first time in years, her fellow Democrats were just as active as Republicans in offering amendments and often voted for Republicans' amendments.

That includes the 15 Democrats who helped the GOP pass an amendment to defund the Presidio Trust, a public-private partnership in Mrs. Pelosi's district that runs a stunning bit of parkland right next to the Golden Gate.

The Presidio is supposed to be self-sufficient by 2013, but the amendment, offered by Rep. Thomas Reed, New York Republican, would end federal funding in 2011 by canceling $15 million designated for the park. The amendment passed by a vote of 239-186.

For Mr. Boehner, the hit to his district could be even bigger. Lawmakers voted to end a $450-million-a-year contract to build an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. One of the key plants involved in building the engine is in Mr. Boehner's hometown of Cincinnati.

Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Boehner reacted differently to the votes.

Mr. Boehner told reporters Thursday that the House was allowed to vote as it saw fit, and that is the way he plans to run the chamber.

"This is not about me. This is not about my district. This ought to be about the U.S. House speaking on behalf of all Americans, both Democrats and Republicans," he said.

Asked whether he would try to get the money restored in the Senate, he said, "I have no comment."

Mrs. Pelosi, however, said that's exactly what she will try to do with the money for the Presidio Trust.

"I will fight alongside Senators [Dianne] Feinstein and [Barbara] Boxer to ensure that this damaging provision never becomes law," she said in a statement calling the vote "misguided."

Mr. Obama took his lumps, too, and chiefly on environmental issues.

Lawmakers voted to block the Environmental Protection Agency from following through on regulating greenhouse gas emissions, voted to stop the EPA's new rules allowing more ethanol to be blended into motor vehicle fuels, and voted to keep the EPA from shutting down a surface mining operation in West Virginia.

Another amendment that passed would defund many of Mr. Obama's policy "czars," who oversee key areas of policy from within the White House.

But the real bipartisan attack on Mr. Obama came over his Education Department's rules to limit for-profit schools.

The administration argues that some of those schools take advantage of students and fail to deliver a worthwhile education, but a broad coalition of Republicans and Democrats said the department's new rules would hurt honest programs, too.

Sacred cows got gored last week on the Senate side, too, where senators voted for the first major limits to the Essential Air Service program in a decade. Under that program, the federal government subsidizes service at out-of-the-way airports that would otherwise likely be uneconomical to keep open.

While the Senate rejected amendments to do away with EAS, they did accept Sen. Tom Coburn's amendment to restrict it to cities that are 100 miles away from a major airport — up from the current 70-mile requirement.

Among the other projects to get the ax, at least in the House bill, were a $42.6 million cut to the U.S. Institute of Peace, $10.7 million for the East-West Center, $10 million in grants to improve sewers in Tijuana, Mexico, $20.5 million in cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, nine amendments to halt funding all or parts of the new health care law, and a $20 million cut in programs to reduce the debt of countries with tropical rain forests.

Also taking a hit was the National Drug Intelligence Center, which rank-and-file lawmakers had long sought to kill but which had been protected by its patron, Rep. John P. Murtha, a Democrat who used to use earmarks to keep his southwestern Pennsylvania district awash in federal money.

Murtha died last year, and lawmakers seized on the chance to defund the center, which employs more than 200 people.

Taxpayers advocates said the change isn't surprising.

"The NDIC vote didn't really surprise me, because its greatest patron isn't there anymore," said Steve Ellis, a vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

He said freshman lawmakers appeared to be perfectly at ease in voting down leaders' priorities, and without the power to dole out earmarks, the leaders didn't have the tools to bargain with those junior members.

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