Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dems Write $500 Billion Spending Bill -- In Secret...

Congress is scrambling to pass the Pentagon budget, aid for flood and hurricane victims and $25 billion in loans for Detroit automakers in a late-session burst of activity that's flying under the radar compared with efforts to bail out Wall Street.

Funding for veterans health care and homeland security programs is also in the mix as Democratic leaders ponder what other items should catch a ride on must-do legislation to keep the government running beyond the Oct. 1 start of the 2009 budget year.

A stopgap bill must pass to avoid a government shutdown, so Democrats are viewing it as a locomotive to pull past a skeptical White House measures such as the automaker loan and a doubling of home heating subsidies for the poor.

Passage of the bill is complicated by the question of how much further oil exploration to permit off the U.S. coast. Democrats are seeking to attach a plan to open waters 50 miles off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to oil and natural gas development, though only if the adjacent states agree to it.

Republicans and the White House want to completely lift current restrictions on coastal drilling, and President Bush' veto pen gives them the edge.

Discussions on the budget are far overshadowed by the ongoing debate over a $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street. But the amount of money at stake — including a $488 billion Pentagon funding bill that hasn't seen a second's worth of public debate or review — is almost as great.

Details of the emerging legislation remain secret, but its outlines have come out in interviews with aides to both the House and Senate Appropriations committees, as well as aides to top House and Senate leaders.

The legislation is coming together in a remarkably secretive process in which decisions are concentrated in the hands of just a few lawmakers such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

The unusual process means thousands of lawmakers' pet projects of the very sort blasted by GOP presidential nominee John McCain on the campaign trail would escape scrutiny, including up to $5 billion worth of such "earmarks" in the defense budget alone.

Congressional leaders hope to pass the budget legislation this week, but several issues remained undecided Monday. For starters, it wasn't clear how much the White House would be willing to accept.

Bush has threatened to veto bills that don't cut the number and cost of earmarks in half or cause agency operating budgets, taken together, to exceed his request.

While top-level congressional leaders haven't made final decisions, elements of the year-end budget package are likely to include:

Stopgap government funding. Most federal agencies would see their budgets frozen at current levels for several weeks or even into March. Lawmakers want to avoid a postelection "lame duck" session, but fear the White House will force them to return to session in November in hopes Congress would approve a free trade pact with Colombia.

Security-related budgets. More than $600 billion to fund the 2009 budgets for the Pentagon, Homeland Security Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Disaster aid. Up to $25 billion in emergency funding for victims of Gulf Coast hurricanes, midwestern floods and other natural disasters.

Automaker loans. More than $7 billion is provided to subsidize $25 billion in loans to help the "Big Three" U.S. automakers retool their plants to build cleaner, more energy efficient cars.

Heating subsidies. Democrats want to double the budget to $5.1 billion for a popular program providing heating subsidies for the poor.

Democrats were also weighing whether to try to add another extension of unemployment benefits to the year-end budget package. Another option would be to add the unemployment insurance coverage to a subsequent $50 billion-plus measure to stimulate the economy with infrastructure spending, aid to states and additional food stamp benefits.

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