WASHINGTON — In a potential threat to the long-stalled new downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse, the Republican-controlled House voted Wednesday night to prevent the Justice Department from spending money to staff the building.
The prohibition, attached to a funding bill, is certain to face resistance in the Senate, where California's Democratic senators have made a new courthouse at 1st and Broadway a priority.
Still, the vote signaled Central Valley Republican Rep. Jeff Denham's determination to scuttle a $400-million project he considers unnecessary.
Denham, of Turlock, has sought to sell the vacant courthouse site to help reduce the federal budget deficit.
"This country is $15 trillion in debt, and [the General Services Administration] continues to waste millions of dollars on a project no one needs," he said.
The measure, approved on a voice vote, would not prevent construction of the courthouse. Instead, it would bar the U.S. attorney's office and the U.S. Marshals Service from spending funds in the next fiscal year "to carry out activities" at the courthouse, which is not expected to be ready for occupancy until 2016.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles), who has championed the courthouse, said she was surprised at Denham's determination to "undermine a courthouse project that has already been authorized and appropriated and therefore has no impact on the current budget."
The project, planned for more than a decade, has been identified as "the top priority of federal judges due to the lack of security at the current courthouse," she said. Project supporters also cite asbestos problems at the Depression-era courthouse on Spring Street.
"The courthouse has been a bipartisan project, and it saddens me to see a fellow Californian putting the Republican Party line before what's best for the people in our state," Roybal-Allard added.
The House bill already faces a White House veto threat because of a number of its spending cuts.
But Denham could be aided by turmoil within the General Services Administration. In January, then-GSA chief Martha Johnson announced her agency's decision to begin construction of the courthouse this year. But she resigned in April after an investigation showed her agency spent nearly $823,000 on a Las Vegas-area conference for 300 employees in 2010. Since then, the agency has come under congressional scrutiny.
"When GSA is not busy taking vacations in Las Vegas, they continue to build bigger courthouses than Congress authorizes," Denham said on the House floor Wednesday night.
The project's backers include Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an influential member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.