Democrats gave big increases to programs aimed at making cars and buildings more energy efficient and boosting research and development of alternative energy sources in legislation approved Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee.
At the same time, the panel rejected the Bush administration's plans to develop a new, sturdier nuclear warhead. The lawmakers said it would send the wrong signal to the world on nuclear nonproliferation and should not be pursued before a comprehensive strategy on future nuclear weapons needs is developed. Overall, the bill would cut $632 million from President Bush's request for nuclear weapons programs.
The panel also approved separate legislation providing a 13 percent increase over current-year funding for veterans health care programs. That bill, also funding construction at military bases, faces a White House veto threat for exceeding Bush's budget request by $4 billion.
But House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., dismissed Bush's veto threat over politically popular increases for veterans programs as "not credible," and Republicans joined Democrats in approving the veterans funding measure by a 56-0 vote.
The panel's support for the Democrat-drafted Energy Department budget was equally bipartisan, even though the measure - which also funds Army Corps of Engineers water projects - exceeds Bush's request by more than $1 billion.
Much of that money would go to boosting clean energy technologies such as research into solar, geothermal and hydropower energy, as well as alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. Research into next generation automobiles designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions would receive a 25 percent hike over current levels.
The increases for veterans continue a trend in which Democrats have used every opportunity, including the recently enacted Iraq war funding bill, to add to the rapidly rising budget for veterans medical treatment.
Wednesday's panel session was not devoid of controversy, however, as lawmakers sided with utilities to keep in effect a new law aimed at easing construction of new transmission lines. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. and Frank Wolf, R-Va., said the law gives utilities too much power to build lines over objections from landowners and state and local governments.
But Hinchey and Wolf ended up on the losing end of a 35-30 vote in which some liberal Democrats from urban areas needing more electricity sided with GOP allies of electric companies.
Meanwhile, Obey sought to quell a controversy over so-called earmarks - homestate projects that lawmakers insert into spending legislation. Obey recently ignited a firestorm by announcing Democrats would sidestep earmark reforms passed in January that require lawmakers sponsoring parochial projects to be identified in documents that accompany spending bills.
Rather than including specific pet projects, grants and contracts in legislation as it is being written, Democrats plan to add requests for earmarks such as dams, military bases and community grants to spending measures during closed-door House-Senate negotiations in the fall. Opponents contended the move runs counter to promises to make Congress' pork barrel ways more transparent.
Obey said Wednesday he will make rosters of earmarks available well before final votes in the fall so lawmakers and budget watchdog groups would have ample time to review them.
"Members will be able to write this committee if they have any objection to an earmark the conference committee is putting in, and the sponsor of that earmark will have an opportunity to respond to any criticism," Obey said.