House conservatives strip $500 million from military spending bill


WASHINGTON (AP) – House conservatives, rejecting protests from fellow Republicans who said they were depriving troops of needed support, stripped $500 million in military construction projects from a veterans spending bill Friday.

Democrats blamed GOP-backed tax cuts and a tight budget passed two days ago for creating a fiscal crisis leading to the cuts, most of which were for new facilities at various military bases. The bill provides a 10 percent increase for veterans programs.

“I don’t know why they (the troops) should be stuck in the middle of a family squabble within the Republican Party,” said Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The conservatives, led by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, used parliamentary procedures to delete some 20 projects worth $507 million from the $94 billion spending bill for military construction and veterans programs in fiscal 2007, which will begin Oct. 1. The overall bill passed 395-0.

Writers of the legislation, seeking to meet limits outlined in the just-passed budget, had taken the money for the projects from a $50 billion war reserve to fund urgent projects, a move characterized by both conservatives and Democrats as a budgetary gimmick.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a fiscal hawk, asked how $18.1 million for a bachelor enlisted quarters at Camp Pendleton in California or $102 million for a brigade complex at Fort Lewis, Washington, could be considered emergency spending.

“The ink is not even dry on the budget and we are already attempting to violate it, and that’s simply not right,” said Hensarling.

The conservatives also noted the bill contained some 66 other earmarks, or projects requested by individual members, costing the same $500 million. But Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., chairman of the subcommittee that wrote the bill, slammed Hensarling, saying, “He does not understand that we are at war.”

“Please don’t come out here and lecture us,” Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, another GOP member of the Appropriations Committee.

, told the conservatives. “Pick another bill, not this one.”

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a leader of the conservatives, told reporters this would not be the last spending battle. “I think you are going to see an ongoing effort by House conservatives to see this Congress live within our means.”

Democrats also pointed out that, while the bill approves record levels of spending for veterans’ and active duty health programs, it falls $735 million short because the House did not go along with a White House request for fee increases for military retirees eligible for Tricare, the Defense Department’s health care system.

Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, top Democrat on the military quality of life and veterans affairs subcommittee, said that shortfall, coupled with $316 million in underfunding for base closings and the $507 million cut from construction projects, left the bill $1.5 billion short of what was needed.

“This sends a terrible message to our troops here at home, in Iraq, and Afghanistan,” Edwards said.

Democrats proposed paying for the 20 projects, the $735 million for active duty health care and the $1.82 billion increase in veterans’ health care by trimming tax cuts for those making over $1 million annually. The proposed amendments were ruled out of order.

The White House, while expressing support for the legislation, issued a statement questioning some of its components. It criticized the use of war reserve funds for military construction projects, and urged Congress to eliminate the 66 earmarks that the administration had not requested.

It also opposed cuts in spending to carry out the 2005 base closing act, and urged Congress to consider administration proposals to increase copayments and enrollment fees for higher-income non-disabled veterans and for military retirees under 65 using Tricare.

The bill provides $25.4 billion for veterans’ health programs, up $2.6 billion from the current fiscal year, and $21 billion for the Defense Department health program, up $1 billion. Some $5.5 billion is funded for base closing activities, $6.6 billion for military construction and $4 billion for family housing construction.

The bill is H.R. 5385.

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AP-ES-05-19-06 1743EDT