- The Washington Times - Friday, December 11, 2009

The House passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill Thursday that gives the District of Columbia more control over such local issues as funding abortions and legalizing medical marijuana.

The legislation, which passed 221-202, also would overturn a ban on local funding for D.C. needle-exchange programs and phase out the city’s federally-funded school-vouchers program. The legislation also would lift a nationwide ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchange.

The Senate is expected to pass the legislation, with a vote as early as Saturday.

The District’s non-voting House member Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, said the vote was a “historic step to ensure greater democracy in the nation’s capital.”

“We will never make up for the HIV/AIDS epidemic that besieged this city because needle exchange was banned for a decade or make up for the loss of lives,” Mrs. Norton said. “There is no way to make poor women, forced to carry pregnancies to term, believe that their reproductive choice was guaranteed in the decades when there was a ban on using local funds for abortion for poor women.”

The legislation now before the Democratic-controlled Congress would allow the city to decide whether to implement a referendum to permit the use of medical marijuana.

In 1998, city residents voted in favor of legalizing medical marijuana. But the initiative was blocked by a rider sponsored by Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican who is no longer in Congress. The legislation passed Thursday would lift the so-called Barr Amendment.

D.C. lawmakers said before the vote they would proceed cautiously if the ban is lifted.

Congress oversees much of the District’s government and approves its budget. District residents have long pushed for more autonomy — or “home rule” — including having a House member with full voting privileges.

The effort to give D.C. a full House member came close to passing last year when lawmakers proposed also giving Utah another House member, which would likely be a Republican. However, the effort failed because opponents said such a change would require a constitutional amendment.

The omnibus spending bill gives domestic programs a third major boost this year and awards lawmakers with more than 5,000 home-state projects. The bill combines $447 billion in operating budgets with roughly $650 billion in payments for federal benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The Senate immediately voted to begin debate, with a final vote likely this weekend.

No House Republicans voted for the bill. Some 28 Democrats, chiefly moderates and abortion opponents, opposed it.

The measure provides spending increases averaging about 10 percent to programs under immediate control of Congress. It comes on top of an infusion of cash to domestic agencies in February’s economic stimulus bill and a $410 billion measure in March that also bestowed budget increases well above inflation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the House will vote to raise the cap on government borrowing, currently set at $12.1 trillion. The hike in the debt ceiling is likely to exceed $1.5 trillion so that another politically excruciating vote to raise the limit won’t be needed next year.

The deficit for the 2009 budget year registered $1.4 trillion and a comparable deficit is expected for 2010 — and that’s before Congress spends up to $100 billion to renew extended jobless payments and health insurance subsidies for the unemployed and passes legislation intended to create jobs.

“When are we going to say, ‘Enough is enough?’” asked House Republican Leader John Boehner, Ohio. “Let’s stop the madness.”

President Obama has vowed to bring unsustainable trillion-dollar-plus deficits under control. His budget director has ordered agencies to brace for a spending freeze as part of a midterm election-year push to rein in record budget shortfalls.

The spending bill blends increases for veterans’ programs, NASA and the FBI with a pay raise for federal workers and help for car dealers. It bundles together six of the 12 annual spending bills, capping a dysfunctional appropriations process in which House leaders blocked Republicans from debating key issues and Senate Republicans dragged out debates.

Just the $626 billion defense bill would remain. That’s being held back to serve as a vehicle to advance must-pass legislation such as the debt increase.

The measure contains 5,224 so-called earmarks totaling $3.9 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. Republicans and Democrats share in the largesse, which includes grants to local police departments, money for road and bridge projects, and community and economic development grants.

Democrats made no apologies for the spending increases, saying that domestic programs starved under eight years of President George W. Bush.

“I see these bills as an opportunity to reverse years of neglect — neglect to our roads and bridges, neglect to our lower-income neighbors and friends, neglect to our education system, neglect to our veterans,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat.

Democrats forced a $151 million cut to Mr. Obama’s almost $2.8 billion request for economic and security aid to Afghanistan this week. The president’s $1.6 billion request for aid to Pakistan would be cut $124 million. But Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, a skeptic about the Afghanistan war, said the cuts were not intended as a rebuke to Mr. Obama.

For the more than 2,000 Chrysler and GM dealers closed or facing closure, the bill would offer an improved binding arbitration process to challenge the automakers’ decisions. It also renewed for two more years a federal loan guarantee program for steel companies.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, protested a provision to let Amtrak passengers carry handguns in their checked baggage, provided the guns are unloaded and locked in a secure container. The policy would go into place within a year.

The bill caps a heated debate over Obama’s order to close the Guantanamo Bay jail in Cuba. It would permit detainees held at Guantanamo to be transferred to the United States to stand trial but not to be released.

Federal workers would receive pay increases averaging 2 percent, with people in areas with higher living costs receiving slightly higher increases.

Republicans claimed the measure would mean a 33 percent increase for foreign aid and the State Department, but once war-related funding and emergency funding shuffles are taken into account, the increase is more like 10 to 15 percent. A Democratic press release actually claims a modest overall spending cut but then lists a host of sizable gains when describing specific programs.

The increases to foreign aid were not directed at individual countries as much as initiatives such as health programs, food aid and developmental assistance for poor countries, and funding for additional foreign service officers.

This report is based in part on wire service reports.

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