House passes spending bill that includes millions for McConnell, Kansas lab

A federal appropriations bill includes $404 million for construction costs for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan. The U.S. House and Senate will vote this week. (January 14, 2014)
A federal appropriations bill includes $404 million for construction costs for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan. The U.S. House and Senate will vote this week. (January 14, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

A $1.1 trillion federal spending bill that includes millions of dollars in construction for Kansas passed the House on Wednesday over tepid protests from tea party conservatives.

The omnibus measure provides $219 million for McConnell Air Force Base for construction to prepare for 36 of the new KC-46A tankers in 2016. Another $404 million is for construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, helping to erase concerns that the project would be further delayed in Congress.

The bill was carved out after a month of negotiations between leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees.

That bipartisan effort was reflected by the bill sweeping through the House on a 359-67 vote and being on target for a big Senate vote by Friday. Republicans voted for the bill by a 2 1/2-1 margin, and just three Democrats were opposed.

Reps. Mike Pompeo and Tim Huelskamp, both Kansas Republicans, voted against the bill. Kevin Yoder and Lynn Jenkins, also Kansas Republicans, supported the measure.

“The legislation contains some important Kansas and national priorities that I fought for,” Wichita’s Pompeo said in a statement, citing the work at McConnell. “But I cannot support legislation that undoes important spending restraints that I fought hard to see achieved.”

He said the bill fails to rein in the Affordable Care Act, includes billions of dollars for the president’s “radical green agenda” and keeps military spending the same while increasing funding for “ineffective” domestic programs.

Among other concerns of the bill’s critics was allotting $249 million for Essential Air Service, which subsidizes airlines serving smaller rural airports and enjoys support from many conservatives whose districts benefit from its largesse.

That would help preserve service to the average three people a day flying out of Great Bend and the two people who fly out of Glendive, Mont., per day.

The appropriations bill is for operating the government until just before next fall’s election. It was driven by a bipartisan desire to restore painful cuts in domestic and defense programs and show disaffected voters that Congress can do its job.

The measure funds virtually every agency of government and contains compromises on almost every one of its 1,582 pages. It covers the one-third of government spending subject to annual decisions by Congress and the White House, programs that have absorbed the brunt of budget cuts racked up since Republicans reclaimed control of the House three years ago.

Excluded are giant benefit programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps that are increasingly driving the government deeper into debt.

Tea party Republicans, chastened after sparking a 16-day partial shutdown of the government in October in an attempt to derail President Obama’s health care law, appeared resigned to the bill.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of opposition,” one tea party leader, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said before the vote. “The die has been cast for the next year on budget fights.”

To buy time for the Senate debate, Congress on Wednesday sent Obama a three-day funding bill in time to avert a scheduled shutdown at midnight. The Senate cleared that measure by an 86-14 vote.

The bill increases core agency spending by $26 billion over the fiscal 2013 year that began Oct. 1, after last year’s automatic spending cuts took them to $986 billion. But it’s $31 billion less than Congress passed last March before automatic cuts known as sequestration took effect.

The Pentagon faces a tight squeeze even as it avoids what would have been another $20 billion wave of automatic cuts. The Pentagon’s core budget is basically frozen at $487 billion after most accounts absorbed an 8 percent automatic cut last year. Adding $6 billion to Obama’s war request provides some relief to readiness accounts, however, though active duty troop levels would still be cut by 40,000 to 1.36 million. It includes $85 billion for overseas military operations, a slight cut from last year.

Domestic programs generally fare better and are kept, on average, at levels agreed to last year before the automatic cuts of 5 percent kicked in across the board. Those broadly applied cuts, called sequestration, were triggered by Washington’s inability to follow up a 2011 budget deal with additional deficit savings.

NASA, the FBI and the Border Patrol all won spending increases at the expense of cuts to the Transportation Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service and foreign aid. There’s money to repair the iconic cast iron dome of the U.S. Capitol, full funding for food aid for low-income pregnant women and their children, and a $150 million increase over 2013 for high-priority transportation infrastructure projects.

The bill fills out the budget agreement sealed last month by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the heads of the House and Senate budget committees. Murray and Ryan left it to the chairmen of Congress’ appropriations committees, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., to work out the details.

The measure changes a Ryan-Murray provision cutting military pension cost-of-living increases for working-age retirees to exempt disabled veterans and surviving spouses from the cut.

The lowest-common-denominator bill doesn’t contain big-ticket wins for either side, but the simple fact that a deal came together was seen as a win for Congress as an institution and its band of 81 appropriators. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, strongly pushed for a deal, even though the end product was a 6-inch-high “omnibus” compilation of what was supposed to be a dozen separate spending bills. Presidents and lawmakers alike deride such measures.

The alternatives, however, were to allow automatic spending cuts to strike for a second year and risk another politically debilitating government shutdown.

Democrats celebrated winning an addition $1 billion over last year for the Head Start early childhood education program and excluding from the bill a host of conservative policy “riders” advanced by the GOP.

“We were able to strip out nearly all the new, divisive riders relating to abortion, contraception, gun control, immigration, implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, environmental protection,” said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “This is very important to Democrats.”

Some Democrats said they would support it but only reluctantly, complaining that despite some increases, spending for education, health and other programs would still be too low.

“With this bill, we are waist deep in manure instead of neck deep in manure. Hooray, I guess,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said.

Republicans successfully “zeroed out” funding for high-speed rail, a slap at California Democrats, and they were able to keep tight limits on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the 2010 Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulations.

Conservatives complained that the bill keeps the money flowing to wasteful programs, but the actual debate was a sleepy affair dominated by old-school lawmakers who populate the Appropriations Committee.

“What’s this money going for?” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif. “It continues funding for the scandalous Essential Air Service that pays to fly empty and near empty planes across the country. It continues to throw money at all manner of immensely expensive and failed green energy programs and other forms of corporate welfare.”

Contributing: Associated Press and Rick Plumlee of The Eagle.

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