House leaves biggest spending fight for last

For likely the last time before the election, the GOP on Wednesday began moving a major spending bill with detailed cuts to popular programs.

The 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services spending bill passed out of an Appropriations subcommittee after a vitriolic debate.

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The 112th Congress has been dominated by bruising fiscal fights, but as the election nears, spending showdowns are for the most part being left behind.

The Labor-HHS bill is not expected to even reach the floor for a vote as the GOP rallies around calls to repeal Obama’s healthcare law and to extend the Bush-era tax rates.

The Defense spending bill on the House floor this week is expected to be the last bill to reach the floor.

Lawmakers are expected to approve a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

The current plan is a three-month CR that allows for negotiations in a lame-duck session, although there is some talk among rank and file of a longer one that could punt decisions into the next Congress and administration.

The CR favored by GOP leadership would adhere closely to the current spending level of $1.043 trillion, below the 2013 spending level of $1.047 trillion in last August's debt deal, but above the $1.028 trillion level in the House budget. While the Senate favors the August deal level, Senate Democrats do not appear to be opposed to a temporary measure at the $1.043 lower level.

Public weariness with government showdowns appears to play into the GOP strategy. While voters in polls say they favor balanced budgets, they have also been weary of political brinksmanship and cuts to social programs that may be needed to achieve fiscal balance.

Still, Republicans have found political advantage in blasting the Senate for refusing to pass any spending bills, and they used the Labor-HHS fight to sustain those attacks.

Although House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2010 vowed to pass all 12 bills individually, it looks like the full House will only consider seven. Leadership blames the Senate, which is not moving any bills at all.

On Wednesday, the Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies subcommittee voted to slash the labor, health and education bill by $6.3 billion. The debate was a return to the heated atmosphere of last summer’s budget shutdowns.

And Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), the chairman of the subcommittee, found himself in the middle of the fight.

Rehberg is running as a centrist against Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) this year, and has been touting his vote against the House-passed budget of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Senate campaign commercials.

“I have lost a lot of sleep preparing for all these issues,” Rehberg admitted after the markup. He joked that he hopes he is heading for greener Senate pastures and “hopefully not cattle pastures.”

Rehberg was able to move the bill, which stalled in subcommittee last year, after promising a conservative member the right to offer an amendment more than doubling the cuts. With Rep. Cynthia Lummis’s (R-Wyo.) vote, the bill passed 8 to 6.

House Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks (R-Wash.) said he hopes the bill helps Democrats reclaim the House.

“I hope the American people will judge them as we judge them,” he said. “They ought to support Democrats, who will not come up with cuts like this.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who is trying to become chairman of the spending panel next year, said the bill was part of a GOP “war on women,” a key Democratic talking point this year.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said “this is a tough subcommittee. This is where a lot of our ideological differences clash.”

But he defended the $150 billion bill as an example of the GOP taking the national debt seriously.

“In this bill, we do what we can to address the runaway spending created by ObamaCare and continue to eliminate duplicative and ineffectual programs as we have for the last two years,” he said.

The legislation does not cut some of the most popular programs, shielding the GOP from some criticism. Head Start funding is increased, as are college Pell Grants.

But other areas are slashed. The bill ends President Obama’s signature Race to the Top education initiative and cuts millions from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds NPR and PBS.

The agency that monitors child labor abroad is cut by 68 percent, and the agency that distributes Social Security payments gets cut by $764 million.

It also would cut funding for Planned Parenthood if the organization continued to provide abortions, and contains many riders related to worker rights and union elections.

The bill also forbids Obama's healthcare law from being implemented and counts $8.6 billion in savings from that action.

Lummis and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is running for the Senate, argued that using the savings from not implementing the healthcare law to justify other spending was a “gimmick.”

Lummis offered an amendment that would dedicate all those savings to deficit reduction, forcing an additional 5.5 percent cut to all other programs in the bill.

The total cuts in the bill would have reached $15 billion if the amendment had been adopted.

That amendment was defeated on a voice vote after Rehberg argued against the deeper cut.

Rehberg said the across-the-board cut would penalize smaller, efficient programs especially, and he was supported by Democrats in defeating the Lummis effort.

That was it for bipartisanship during the meeting, which ranked as one of the most divisive the House Appropriations Committee has held in this Congress.

Rogers and Dicks put aside their long friendship amid the heated rhetoric and landed some blows.

Rogers chastised Dicks at one point for “saying we should not be cutting, we should be increasing,” and he noted the failure of the Obama stimulus package to live up to its promises.

Dicks said that instead of $700 billion in spending the stimulus bill should have been $1.5 trillion.

“He’s doubled down!” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) exclaimed.

Notably absent from the fight was Democrat Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.), who sits on the subcommittee but is in treatment for a mood disorder.