- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Democratic chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee moved aggressively Thursday to use accounting tricks to fill in an unexpected $4 billion gap in the budget.

The maneuver by Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., allowed for additional funding for transportation and housing programs, increases in the IRS budget, and maintaining funding levels in a huge bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. But it was met with opposition from panel Republicans who said it violated the spirit of last year’s hard-won budget deal.

Mikulski’s maneuver came after congressional scorekeepers surprised lawmakers by predicting that the Federal Housing Administration will produce $4 billion less in revenues from the mortgages it insures than the administration believes.

The shortfall means that government spending on non-defense programs approved by Congress each year faces an almost 1 percent cut from current levels.

In response, Mikulski shifted about $2.7 million in foreign aid funding to war accounts exempt from budget “caps.” She also made room for using $2 billion in relatively pain-free cuts to so-called mandatory programs to help finance the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, according to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. A senior aide said Mikulski would exempt another $1.2 billion to fight Western wildfires from mandatory caps by declaring it emergency disaster funding.

Sen. Richard Shelby said Mikulski’s maneuvering amounted to an end run around a December budget pact between Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that replaced some automatic cuts to agency operating budgets with new fees and cuts elsewhere in the budget and allowed for January passage of an omnibus spending bill that averted a second government shutdown.

Mikulski defended the moves, saying she was using “tools” employed by her predecessors.

“I did not invent new money and I did not invent new tools,” she said.

While panel Republicans like Shelby fought the accounting maneuvers, GOP opposition is modest compared with the fights of recent years. And Republicans joined with Democrats to unanimously support the veterans and agriculture bills.

At issue is about $1.1 trillion in funding for the Pentagon, domestic agencies and overseas military operations that’s funded by the 12 annual appropriations bills. Mikulski is working to get the appropriations process back on track. It derailed badly last year before being revived by the Murray-Ryan pact. Though Republicans opposed Mikulski’s fiscal maneuvering, they share her goal of restoring open floor debates on and bipartisan passage of the annual spending bills.

The Appropriations panel unanimously approved the first two of the 12 bills on Thursday, a $72 billion measure funding the Veterans Administration and construction projects on military bases and a $21 billion measure for the Agriculture Department.

The panel also added legislation to the VA budget measure that would give the VA secretary more power to discipline the 450 career employees who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency’s 21 regions. The measure cleared the House on Wednesday in response to allegations of treatment delays and falsified reports at VA medical facilities. The measure contains additional money for the VA inspector general to investigate the allegations.

The VA bill adds money above the administration’s request for “quality of life” projects at military bases like fitness centers and day care facilities. While not explicitly “earmarked,” it appears aimed at administration-sought projects like a $19.5 million “child development center” at Andrews Air Force Base in Mikulski’s home state of Maryland.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, successfully added an amendment to the agriculture spending measure that would require genetically engineered salmon, which is pending approval by the Food and Drug Administration, to be labeled as such. And Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, won approval of an amendment that would allow women to purchase white potatoes with vouchers provided by the federal Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, which provides food aid to low-income pregnant women and mothers of young children.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., again won approval of a U.S. ban on slaughtering horses for their meat.

The panel also approved an amendment by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to require further study on sodium standards for school lunches and allow USDA to substitute some whole grain products, responding to school nutrition officials who have concerns about healthier school lunch rules that have been phased in over the last two years. Those proposals are much less sweeping than the agriculture spending bill approved by a House subcommittee earlier this week, which would allow some schools to opt out of the standards entirely.

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