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Congress bucks Obama on spending cuts

The House and Senate approve a bill preserving funding for programs the White House had sought to eliminate.

October 30, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — As it turns out, President Obama's proposed spending cuts aren't entirely the kind of change Congress can believe in.

A determination to protect the power over the purse -- something Congress has fiercely guarded since the earliest days of the republic -- was on display Thursday as the House and Senate approved a bill preserving funding for a number of programs the White House had sought to cut.

It was the latest move by lawmakers in both parties to support projects they consider important to their states -- and perhaps to their reelection prospects.

The bill, which would fund environmental programs and the Interior Department, includes hundreds of earmarks: $1.4 million for repairs at Alcatraz and $1 million for land purchases in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, among others. That spending comes despite Obama's plea for lawmakers to scale back their controversial practice of steering money to pet projects.

"The president is finding some of his budget-cutting rhetoric being dashed against the rocks of parochial congressional politics," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

Among the earmarks was $10 million for an anti-smog program in California that the White House wanted to terminate. Administration officials said California should compete with other states for the funds.

But the program has been championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who, as chairwoman of the Senate interior appropriations subcommittee, helped write the bill. She said the South Coast region and San Joaquin Valley should receive special attention because they are the "only two non-attainment air quality areas in the country that [the Environmental Protection Agency] has proposed to designate as 'extreme' for ozone pollution and also have the highest levels of fine particulate matter pollution in the country."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), legendary for the billions of dollars he has steered to his state and for being a fierce guardian of congressional prerogatives, signaled early on in the president's term that he was prepared to challenge the White House on spending. Byrd not only prevented an effort to cut funding for a highway project in a different spending bill now moving through Congress, he increased the funding.

Still, White House budget officials said they had achieved successes in their budget-cutting efforts, citing billions of dollars in reduced Pentagon spending.

"I think we fared remarkably well, much better than anybody would have anticipated," said Robert Nabors, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"No one expected that changing the old ways of Washington would be easy," said Tom Gavin, a White House budget spokesman. Spending on earmarks, he said, was down from last year.

Obama proposed cutting or eliminating more than 100 programs to save $17 billion, or 0.5% of the budget. It's difficult to issue a report card on his efforts, since lawmakers haven't completed this year's spending bills. But Congress is on track to reject a number of the cuts -- with bipartisan fervor.

"The bill is nearly $100 million below the president's request, so obviously cuts were made, just not always where the president proposed," said Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill approved Thursday includes a stop-gap measure to keep the government running through Dec. 18 while Congress works to finish the remaining spending bills for the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

In other bills moving through Congress, lawmakers have voted against eliminating funding for more Boeing C-17 military cargo planes and ending payments to states for jailing illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, of which California is the largest beneficiary.

In addition, Congress not only rejected Obama's proposal to eliminate $35 million for new emergency operations centers, they boosted the amount to $60 million. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who faces a tough reelection next year, was among the lawmakers crowing about securing funds for a new center in his state.

Most House Republicans voted against the bill, saying it was too costly at a time of record budget deficits. Democrats argued it was needed to fund environmental programs neglected under the George W. Bush administration.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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