House Spending Bill Funds Obama Priorities

Politics Reuters

The House Wednesday is scheduled to vote on a spending bill that reflects a sharp change of course from the generous spending increases that Democrats have backed over the past two years to fight the deepest recession since the 1930s.

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The bill would enable President Barack Obama to implement tougher financial-industry regulations, increased education aid and other priorities as it funds government operations through October 2011, but at a level $46 billion less than he requested.

Still, Democrats hope the measure would make it more difficult for Republicans to push through even deeper spending cuts when they take control of the House in January.

The bill would fund everything from the military to national parks, at the same level as the past fiscal year — a marked change from the generous increases Democrats signed into law during the financial crisis to fund projects such as high-speed rail and sewer-system upgrades.

Many economists say the spending during the crisis, including an $814 billion stimulus effort, helped blunt the impact of the recession. But voters have grown worried about the high levels of U.S. debt and handed a big victory to Republicans in the Nov. 2 congressional elections.

Democratic Representative David Obey, who oversees spending as head of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that he had tried to come up with the best bill possible given the strong sentiment in Washington to rein in spending.

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"This committee has done its dead level best within the constraints under which we are operating to make some modest adjustments to salvage some investments which over the long haul just might create more jobs than a tax break for millionaires," Obey said, referring to a tentative tax deal reached this week between Obama and Republicans that has angered many rank-and-file Democrats.

Pay Freeze, Earmark Ban

The bill was unveiled early Wednesday morning and is scheduled for a vote later in the day, according to the office of House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer. The Senate also must approve the bill before Obama can sign it into law.

The bill would freeze pay for nonmilitary federal workers for two years and prohibit the pet spending projects known as "earmarks" that have become a symbol of wasteful spending for many voters.

It would continue overall spending at last year's level of $1.09 trillion, but allocate the money in different ways to allow the administration to launch new initiatives that have been on hold since the last fiscal year ended on Sept. 30.

It would boost the budgets of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Treasury Department as they gear up for a crackdown on the financial industry under the landmark Dodd-Frank Act, passed earlier this year.

It would allocate $624 million to upgrade nuclear weapons, a key Republican priority, but only if the Senate approves the START nonproliferation treaty. Senate Republicans have so far blocked a vote on the treaty, which would reduce nuclear stockpiles in the United States and Russia.

Body Scanners and Offshore Drilling

Funding for the now-complete Census would be slashed, while the Secret Service would get an increase to begin preparing for the 2012 presidential campaign.

The bill would allow the Transportation Security Administration to buy more of the airport-security body scanners that have raised privacy concerns among travelers, and allow the Interior Department to continue its reform of offshore drilling oversight in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Education priorities, like college-tuition aid and the Race to the Top program, a competition designed to improve the quality of local schools, also would get increased funds.

Though the fiscal year started on Oct. 1, the government has been operating on last year's budget as lawmakers have been unable to complete the 12 bills that fund government operations.

Obey's bill would essentially continue last year's budget through the end of this fiscal year.

Republicans have pushed for a shorter extension that would only last through February, which would give them greater leverage as they fight for sharper spending cuts.

In the Senate, Democrats still hope to pass the 12 spending bills in one large package, though it remains unclear whether they have enough votes to do so.

Congress must act by Dec. 18, when the current funding extension expires.