Defying President Barack Obama, lawmakers on Thursday saved a program that helps states with the cost of incarcerating criminal illegal immigrants as the House began the annual process of crafting the legislation to fund the government.
The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, a favorite of lawmakers from California and Texas, still wasn't completely spared from budget cuts. A House Appropriations panel decided to allocate $300 million to the program, a $100 million reduction from current levels but still a clear rejection of Obama's plans to eliminate the program.
In proposing $17 billion in budget cuts last month, the president called for killing the program.
Separately, the House panel responsible for the annual budgets for NASA and the Justice and Commerce departments froze NASA's budget for human space flight pending an outside review of the agency's plans for replacing the space shuttle and traveling to the moon.
Action by the House panel was the first public step in Congress' lengthy appropriations process. The Appropriations committees sign off on 12 bills to fund annual department and agency operations and, they hope, advance them individually through the House and Senate.
Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers hope to get the process back on track after eight years of struggles during President George W. Bush's presidency.
An increase in funds
Money shouldn't be a problem. Non-defense programs are set to get increases of about 11 percent under calculations that take into account various adjustments. Defense programs would receive 4 percent more money.
At the same time, lawmakers are using a pending war funding measure to effectively squeeze even more money into domestic accounts — all of which comes on top of generous funds in Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan and an omnibus spending bill passed in March.
The $64.4 billion bill approved Thursday provided a 12 percent increase on average to the programs it funds. But the bulk of the increase was consumed by a $4.2 billion hike in the budget for the Census. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., chairman of the Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science subcommittee, said difficult choices were still required to make up for proposed cuts by Obama to grant programs for state and local governments.
The measure also rejects a $60 million Obama request for the Justice Department to finance the agency's role in closing the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In a new burst of transparency, the committee immediately posted a 76-page roster of so-called earmarks sought by lawmakers in both parties. Many were awards to local law enforcement agencies for equipment such as cameras for police cars, DNA test kits and rapid fingerprint identification systems.
Parties clash over war funding bill
Meanwhile, efforts to close out House-Senate negotiations on the approximately $100 billion war funding bill seemed to stall as Democrats appeared short of the votes to pass an emerging compromise through the House.
House Republicans say they will oppose the measure as long as it includes $5 billion to cover the risk of default on a new $100 billion line of credit for the International Monetary Fund promised by Obama at the G-20 summit in April, as well as an existing $8 billion commitment to the IMF.
With Republicans opposing the bill, Democratic leaders worked to win support from anti-war Democrats, 51 of whom opposed the measure last month. Some, like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., have indicated they'll support the bill. But others, such as Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., say they won't switch, despite leadership pressure.
"I haven't cracked yet,' McGovern said.