WASHINGTON -- Democrats controlling the Senate are pushing to spend billions of dollars more than their House GOP rivals on transportation and housing programs despite tough budget limits that promise to roll the increases back.
Those programs include boosting bridge construction and stimulus-style grants for roads, transit, and railroads.
Funding for efficient and renewable energy programs slashed by House Republicans would receive a 21 percent boost under a $35 billion Energy Department spending bill written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., meanwhile, unveiled a new $500 million appropriation dedicated to rebuilding and replacing bridges in vital transportation corridors like the Interstate-5 bridge that collapsed in her state.
But Murray, who doubles as chair of the Budget Committee, knows as well as anyone that the Democratic spending levels are more than $90 billion over a severe budget "cap" imposed by Washington’s ongoing budget gridlock.
At stake are the 12 annual funding bills setting agency operating budgets for the fiscal year starting in October. Senate Democrats are drawing up bills that would total $1.058 trillion in keeping with spending limits anticipated under a hard-fought 2011 budget deal and slightly modified in January. But current law sets a much lower cap of $967 billion because Congress didn’t follow up the 2011 law with another deficit-cutting deal.
Working with the additional money, Democrats were able Tuesday to actually propose boosting Amtrak’s $1.4 billion budget to almost $1.5 billion instead of cutting it to $950 million as proposed by the House. Murray’s $500 million pot for bridge construction wasn’t even requested by President Barack Obama but follows major bridge collapses in Minnesota and Kentucky as well as the I-5 collapse in Skagit County last month.
Murray also boosted a so-called TIGER grant program for transportation projects first established under Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus bill, proposing $550 million, a 10 percent increase. Her House GOP counterpart, Tom Latham of Iowa, not only would eliminate next year’s funding but would pull back $237 million already approved. Murray also restored House cuts to housing vouchers for the poor and flexible Community Development Block Grants that are a favorite with local politicians of all political stripes.
The House and Senate Appropriations panels typically toil away from late spring advancing their 12 bills, which typically aren’t enacted until the end of the calendar year or even later. But House and Senate leaders have increasingly been reluctant to provide floor time -- not a single Senate measure was brought to a floor vote last year -- and the measures are often bundled together in a catchall "omnibus" spending bill.
In the wake of last week’s embarrassing defeat of an important renewal of farm programs and food stamps, House leaders pulled both a popular Pentagon measure and an agriculture appropriations bill from this week’s floor schedule.
Despite some bipartisanship in the House, and considerably more in the more generous Senate, there’s no easy path for this year’s round of spending bills until a broader budget deal comes into place that sets an overall spending cap and deals with the automatic cuts, known as sequestration. House and Senate leaders aren’t even talking and a sporadic series of budget meetings between Senate Republicans and White House officials haven’t gotten serious yet.
Meanwhile, the White House has issued a blanket series of veto threats against every House GOP appropriations bill, citing cuts to education, infrastructure and other programs and the agriculture spending bill became the latest target on Tuesday. The White House veto threat cited cuts to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which helps implement a 2010 law overhauling regulation of Wall St., as well as "harmful cuts in rural economic development, renewable energy development, nutrition programs, food safety, agricultural research, and international food aid."
The House Appropriations Committee meets Wednesday to approve a transportation and housing bill and a measure funding the Energy Department and water projects; the Senate panel meets Thursday on its versions of those bills.