WASHINGTON (AP) — With one of their own in the White House, Democrats in Congress are moving to give domestic government agencies 8 percent more money, on average, to spend this year atop the whopping $787 billion in economic stimulus funds.
Just a day before President Barack Obama gives Congress a blueprint for the upcoming 2010 budget year, the House is taking up a massive $410 billion spending bill wrapping together the budgets for a dozen Cabinet departments through next September.
The big increases — including a 21 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent hike for Section 8 housing vouchers for the poor — represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with President George W. Bush over money for domestic programs.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, counted 8,570 pet projects totaling $7.7 billion inserted into the bill by lawmakers. The so-called earmarks include $22 million for an addition for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, dozens of grants to states and counties to battle methamphetamine, and a new $250,000 siren for St. Paul, Minn., to warn residents of tornadoes and other emergencies.
House Republican leaders attacked the bill as excessive, especially on the heels of the giant stimulus package, which provided $311 billion to many of the same agencies. Nonetheless, the measure is expected to sail through Congress in time to meet a March 6 deadline. That's when a temporary funding measure expires.
The House spending bill has an extraordinary reach, funding the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Those agencies are especially popular politically and were funded last fall.
Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout the House bill, including a $2.4 billion, 13 percent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 percent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system.
Congress also awarded itself a 10 percent increase in its own budget, bringing it to $4.4 billion.
Including the stimulus package and lower tax revenues because of the recession — plus about $50 billion that Obama is expected to seek from Congress to pay for continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the White House is projecting this year's budget shortfall to be $1.5 trillion, compared with a previous record $455 billion in 2008.
While Bush had a reputation as a big spender, he mostly sought increases for defense and foreign aid, and grudgingly went along when Congress restored his proposed cuts to domestic programs. Last year, Democrats abandoned efforts to pass the annual spending measures — betting that Obama would win in November — rather than dive ahead into a final fight with Bush over spending.
With Bush out of the way, Democrats were free to draft the measures as they pleased, rewarding hundreds of individual programs with increases that Bush had previously been able to block with veto threats.
They also cut a few Bush priorities such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which funnels aid to countries that adopt democratic reforms. But it's been slow to distribute previous appropriations and absorbed a 60 percent cut from Bush's request last year.
Still, the State Department and foreign aid accounts would receive a 12 percent boost.
The bill also contains a host of provisions aimed at reversing Bush-era policies, including making it easier for people to visit relatives in Cuba and shutting down a controversial program that allows some Mexican trucking companies to operate freely throughout the United States, instead of only along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Obama's 2010 budget proposal Thursday is expected to be considerably less generous to the approximately one-third of the budget processed by the congressional appropriations committees each year. Increases reflecting inflation and population growth are likely for most accounts, but Obama is also expected to recommend cuts from programs he deems wasteful and instead use money for his own initiatives.
The bill is H.R. 1105.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.