WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are promising increases for popular community development grants, transit programs and housing for the poor as they bring the first spending bill for the 2014 fiscal year to the floor — despite a broader budget impasse that is keeping GOP support to a minimum.
Democratic leaders said Thursday that they'll move a $108 billion transportation and housing measure to the floor next week. It is among the 12 annual appropriations bills most commonly associated with generating jobs, given its investments in infrastructure projects, and Democratic leaders appear to have chosen it to air their differences with the GOP-controlled House, which has drafted a far more austere measure that's in line with the automatic spending cuts required because of Washington's broken budget process.
Debate comes amid a continuing impasse between the GOP-controlled House, Democratic Senate and the White House over how to deal with painful, automatic across-the-board spending cuts that are leading to furloughs of federal workers, reduced military readiness and sweeping cuts across domestic programs that are being felt across the country.
Even though both House and Senate have passed competing budget blueprints, there hasn't been any effort to reconcile differences over tax increases, cuts to benefits programs, and cuts to the approximately one-third of the federal budget passed each year to fund the Pentagon and the day-to-day operating budgets of domestic agencies funded by appropriations bills. The move to advance the transportation and housing bill came as the senate Appropriations panel approved two more domestic measures, a $46 billion bill to fund the Homeland Security Department and a $52 billion measure for the Justice and Commerce departments and science-related agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Senate Democrats are counting on the help of a handful of pragmatic-minded Senate Republicans to advance the spending bills even though they total more than $90 billion more than those drafted by House Republicans.
There are a handful of bills, like the homeland security measure and bills funding the Veterans Administration and the Pentagon, where the differences between the House and Senate are small enough that they could probably be passed into law despite the broader impasse in Washington. But Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., want a budget pact first and are focusing on passing domestic spending bills favored by Democrats.
One such measure, funding education, health research at the National Institutes of Health, and programs for the poor like the Head Start pre-schools, is another candidate for floor action, Reid said. House Republicans are pressing for cuts of about 25 percent below the Senate version of the bill.
The House is working from an $867 billion appropriations "cap" required under so-called sequestration, the automatic cuts mandated by Washington's failure to adopt a new budget pact to follow on a hard-fought agreement brokered two years ago. Senate Democrats are living by a significantly larger $1.058 trillion cap envisioned under the 2011 agreement.
There's plenty of incentive for both sides to compromise. House GOP defense hawks are upset by steep cuts to the Pentagon and a move by House leaders to shift more than $40 billion from domestic programs to defense would be negated by a new round of sequestration next year. The Democratic Senate bills, meanwhile, would trigger a wave of sequestration cuts too that would erase the tens of billions of dollars of promises made in those bills.
Reid vowed Democrats will fight to protect domestic programs cherished by the party.
"We are not going to be gamed by having the military programs funded at a much higher level than the Head Start program or NIH," Reid said Thursday. "We're not going to do that. We're through."
But with time running out before the Oct. 1 start of the 2014 budget year, it'll take a stopgap measure to prevent a government shutdown, and talks have just begun between Reid and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The $108 billion measure coming to the Senate floor next week blends $54 billion in so-called discretionary spending — money under the Appropriations Committee's direct control — with an almost equal amount of already-enacted funding from highway and rail trust funds. It restores deep cuts proposed by House Republicans to community development block grants to local governments, preserves housing vouchers for the poor, and boosts mass transit funding well above House GOP levels.
The House may take up its more austere version of the transportation and housing measure next week, too.
"I think the contrast between our bill and the House bill will make it very clear to the American people that Republicans need to let us start a budget conference, work with us to replace sequestration with more responsible and sustainable deficit reduction, and help us put American families and our economy first," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
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