House ignores Obama's call for sacrifice, boosts '09 budget

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 25, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The day after President Barack Obama told Congress that it would have to "sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars,'' the House of Representatives passed a massive budget bill Wednesday that increases spending by 8 percent over last year.

The 245-178 vote, largely along party lines, came less than 24 hours after Obama stood in the House chamber and pleaded for fiscal restraint. All but 20 Democrats voted for the measure. Sixteen Republicans, mostly moderates, voted for the bill, while 158 opposed it.

House Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said of the $410 billion bill, which funds most domestic programs for the next seven months: "This has nothing to do with him. This has to do with President Bush's budget."

Republicans disputed that.

"It's time the Democrats started putting their money where their mouth is," said Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana.

Tuesday, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, Obama discussed the soaring federal budget deficit, which is expected to top $1.4 trillion this year.

"Given these realities," he said, "everyone in this chamber — Democrats and Republicans — will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me."

The bill, though, provides sizable increases for a long list of health, education, transportation, housing and other domestic programs. In some cases, the boosts go to items that already got more money in the $787 billion economic-stimulus plan that became law last week.

Lawmakers did make one important nod toward austerity: They froze their salaries for 2010. Most members of Congress earn $174,000 a year; leaders get more. The freeze doesn't affect 2009 pay. Members got a $4,700 cost-of-living raise last month.

The spending plan now goes to the Senate, where it faces opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats. Congress must pass some kind of funding legislation by March 6 or domestic programs will run out of money.

Obama hasn't signaled whether he'll get involved. He's emphasizing his budget for fiscal year 2010, which begins Oct. 1, and he plans to release an outline of it Thursday.

The full 2010 budget is expected in April. Democrats are optimistic that they can pass the spending bills that make up the budget by Oct. 1.

They see a different mood from last year, when President George W. Bush and the Democrats, who've controlled both houses of Congress since January 2007, deadlocked over fiscal 2009 spending. Bush wanted to spend about $19 billion less than the Democrats did.

"We said, OK, if that's the case, we'll take our chances with the election and deal with somebody who will negotiate like an adult," recalled House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis. The agencies are being funded at roughly fiscal 2008 levels.

Obama has tried to distance himself from the bill. He didn't mention it in his address Tuesday and has repeatedly criticized earmarks, local projects that lawmakers insert into such measures without review. This bill contains about 9,000 such earmarks, at a total of about $3.8 billion.

Obey defended them, suggesting that no one knows local needs as local lawmakers do, and that very few of the earmarks are controversial. The alternative, he said, is to have "the White House and bureaucrats" making such local decisions.

The bill dramatically changes spending priorities in a number of key areas.

Transit programs would get $10.1 billion, $773 million more than last year. Public housing capital and operating funds would receive $7 billion, up $266 million. Community Development Block Grants, a popular program that helps neighborhood projects across the country, would see $34 million more, for a total of $3.9 billion.

Health-care programs fare well. The National Institutes of Health has $30.3 billion, up $938 million. A new effort to have states provide health-care coverage to certain groups got $75 million and community health centers will receive $2.2 billion, up $125 million.

Also included is money for programs that got a boost from the stimulus package. Title I education grants, or aid to disadvantaged elementary and secondary education, will get another $648 million, for a total of $15 billion, while Pell Grants, which help lower-income families pay college costs, get another $3 billion, for a total of $17.3 billion.

The Republicans' biggest complaint was that the bill seems to have few spending restraints; Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., called it a "wild-eyed spending bill."

Democrats countered that it was the Republican Party that's been irresponsible. "I don't want to hear lectures from people" who ran up the deficit by promoting war in Iraq and huge tax cuts, Obey said.

ON THE WEB:

House roll call vote on budget

Text of House spending bill

Transportation, housing and economic development earmarks

Congressional salaries through the years

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:

GOP hates earmarks — except the ones its members sponsor

Big stimulus bill sparks long-term fiscal fears

Earmark reform? 2009 spending bill contains 9,000 of them

Obama's deficit plan based on optimistic assumptions

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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