The House put spending hikes for the environment, national parks and global warming research center stage Tuesday as it worked through the Interior appropriations bill.
Democrats argue such programs have gotten short shrift for years under President Bush's leadership, but their resulting increases for items such as Environmental Protection Agency clean water grants have incited the White House into threatening to veto the bill as "irresponsible and excessive."
The measure represents the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between the White House and Democrats over the 12 annual spending bills doling out the approximately one-third of the federal budget passed each year by Congress.
Democrats almost doubled funding for research into climate change and trumpeted an 11 percent increase to operate and maintain national parks in advance of a major 100th-anniversary celebration in 2016.
"Our national parks have been shortchanged for far too long," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., as the House opened debate on the Interior appropriations measure.
In most other accounts, the increases are typically small and are generally focused on run-of-the-mill operating accounts that for years have had to absorb costs from inflation and higher pay for federal workers. But they add up, and the resulting measure is almost 9 percent over Bush's budget request and 4 percent over funding approved last year.
"Between 2001 and 2007 ... funding for the Interior Department fell 16 percent, EPA by 29 percent and the Forest Service non-fire budget by 35 percent, when adjusted for inflation," said the bill's floor manager, Norm Dicks, D-Wash.
Battle over pork
The measure is also the first of the spending bills to contain so-called earmarks, the back-home projects so eagerly prized by almost every lawmakers. The measure contains 228 projects sought by lawmakers, totaling $119 million.
That's one-half the amount than passed by Republicans two years ago, but GOP conservative Jeb Hensarling has proposed almost 200 amendments to kill lawmakers projects.
The projects include funding to preserve historic buildings, as well as EPA water and sewer grants.
The bill also contains a provision by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.,to effectively bar oil companies benefiting from controversial offshore oil and gas leases issued in the late 1990s from obtaining new leases. Oil companies pay no royalties on the leases - thanks to a mistake by Clinton administration bureaucrats - even though oil prices have tripled since they were awarded.
The Senate has yet to act on companion legislation.