- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

UPDATED:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Wednesday took up a $630 billion-plus spending bill awarding the Pentagon a record budget while giving generous help to U.S. automakers and victims of hurricanes and floods.

The year-end budget measure also would lift a quarter-century ban on drilling for oil off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and is flying under the political radar compared with a hugely controversial White House plan to bail out Wall Street.

The bill is fueled by a need to keep the government running past the Oct. 1 start of the 2009 budget year. Until now, Democrats had mostly punted on the need to pass the 12 annual spending bills funding agency operating budgets, but the 357-page measure released late Tuesday along with 752 pages of accompanying explanations and tables of previously secret earmarks by lawmakers would close out about 60 percent of the budget work Congress must pass each year.

That includes $488 billion for the Pentagon, $40 billion for Homeland Security Department programs and $73 billion for veterans programs and military base construction projects.

The bill would settle dozens of battles, big and small, between Democrats controlling Congress and the lame-duck Bush administration and its allies on Capitol Hill.

The most significant decision and a big win for Republicans in this politically charged election season came as Democrats capitulated on the question of lifting the offshore drilling ban. And the Bush administration succeeded in repelling efforts by Democrats to extend unemployment insurance, increase food stamp payments and help states deal with shortfalls in their Medicaid budgets.

Democratic leaders promised to bundle such items, along with billions for infrastructure projects, in a more than $50 billion measure they hope to advance later this week. It’s expected to stall in the Senate.

Democrats won additional funding for heating subsidies for the poor and successfully pressed the White House for a more generous aid package for disaster-ravaged states like Texas and Iowa. A shortfall in Pell college aid grants would be averted, as would problems in the Women, Infants and Children program delivering healthy foods to the poor.

U.S. automakers would receive up to $25 billion in low-interest loans to help them develop technologies and retool factories to meet new standards for cleaner, more fuel efficient cars.

The bill would also eliminate the need for a much-dreaded, postelection lame-duck session to deal with unfinished work. The Senate is expected to send the bill to President Bush, who is expected to sign it.

The legislation came together in a remarkably secret process that concentrated decision-making power in the hands of just a few lawmakers, such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The rush to the floor also ran counter to Democratic promises for more open disclosure of billions of dollars worth of earmarks, those home-state pet projects sought by most lawmakers. Anti-earmark watchdogs such as Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and outside groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense had but a few hours to scrutinize the legislation before debate began Wednesday morning.

The watchdog group discovered $6.6 billion worth of earmarks, including 1,997 totaling $4.8 billion in the defense portion alone. Among them was a long-standing request by the Iowa delegation for a new $182 million federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, which was granted after flood damage this summer.

“Congress is being forced to approve a package that was created in a back room by a handful of Democrat leaders and staff. This legislation has never seen the light of day, and has had no oversight or scrutiny by the vast majority of representatives, senators, the media or the American public,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

The secretive deliberations and the intense spotlight cast on the separate Wall Street bailout seemed to ensure that the spending measure would have a low profile. But that also meant Democrats will have to battle to remind voters of the gains made in funding for popular homeland security and veterans health programs.

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