Senators press local matters in spending debate

Senators press local matters as spending debate nears an end

Associated Press
Catchall spending bill advances in Senate
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House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., appears before the House Rules Committee to testify on his party’s budget proposal, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, March 18, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sometimes,it's the small stuff. As a government-wide spending bill nears the finish line in the Senate, chamber members are focusing on local concerns like keeping meat inspectors on the job and preventing furloughs at rural airports as well as re-opening the White House to tours.

The massive spending bill is required to avert a government showdown at the end of the month when funding for the day-to-day operations of every Cabinet department expires.

There had once been speculation that the measure could be a potential vehicle to turn off painful across-the-board spending cuts of 5 percent to domestic programs and 8 percent to the Pentagon but now much of the focus is on bread-and-butter issues as facilities back home begin to absorb the cuts.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is pressing to shore up accounts funding the salaries for contractors at Army facilities like the Tobyhanna Army Depot, which plans to lay off 418 civilian contract employees in the coming weeks, though the $60 million he's proposing to add would barely make a dent in the layoffs. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., want to shift $55 million from lower-priority Agriculture Department accounts to prevent furloughs of thousands of food inspectors.

"Without this funding, every meat, poultry, and egg processing facility in the country would be forced to shut down for up to two weeks," Blunt said in a statement. "That means high food prices and less work for the hardworking Americans who work in these facilities nationwide."

Both Democrats and Republicans are trying to reverse cuts that would close 138 air traffic control towers at smaller airports across the country, while supporters of military personnel want to restore funding for a Pentagon program that helps pay tuition so active military can attend college part time.

And Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has an amendment that would partially shield NASA facilities like the Glenn Research center in his state from cuts by taking money away from construction of new facilities in the South. He is not expected to succeed.

The Senate resumed debate on the huge spending bill Monday, with a key procedural vote slated for late afternoon. Negotiations continued behind the scenes on what amendments might be permitted to be offered.

The sweeping 587-page measure sets a path for government in the wake of across-the-board spending cuts that took effect March 1. It is necessary because of the collapse last year of the annual congressional appropriations process. None of the 12 annual spending bills setting agency budgets have advanced and the government has been running on autopilot since last October.

The legislation cobbles together the detailed, line-by-line budgets for the Pentagon and several domestic Cabinet agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice. Such agencies would still be subject to across-the-board spending cuts known as a sequester but having their full budget bills in place would help them cope with the cuts.

The measure reflects a lowest common denominator approach that gives the Pentagon much-sought relief for readiness accounts but adds money sought by Democrats like Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland for domestic programs such as the Head Start early education program, health research, and highway construction.

Democrats need GOP votes to pass the measure through the Senate, which Democrats control with 55 votes but where 60 votes are required for virtually every piece of substantive legislation. Using their leverage, Republicans have denied a White House request for almost $1 billion to help set up state health-care exchanges to implement Obama's health care reform as well as smaller requests for financial regulators to implement the 2010 Dodd-Frank law overhauling regulation of Wall St. and for the Internal Revenue Service to police tax returns.

Passage of the huge spending measure would draw to a close a mostly overlooked battle between House Republicans and Obama and his Senate Democratic allies over the annual spending bills required to fund federal agency operations, paving the way for Congress to turn away from the current budget year and resume battling over the future.

That debate features sharply differing House GOP and Senate Democratic budget plans. House Budget Committee Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the failed GOP vice presidential nominee, has resumed his role as top wonk and budget tutor.

The latest Ryan plan generally resembles prior ones, relying on higher tax revenues enacted in January and improved Medicare cost estimates — along with $4.6 trillion in spending cuts over a decade — to promise a balanced budget in 10 years.

The counter budget proposal from Senate Democrats would repeal the sequester cuts at a cost of $1.2 trillion over a decade and blends about $1 trillion in modest cuts to health care providers, the Pentagon, domestic agencies and interest payments on the debt over the with an equal amount in new revenue claimed by closing tax breaks. The net result would cut about $600 billion from the deficit over 10 years.

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