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Conferees OK Continuity Plan

Lawmakers agreed to a $3.8 billion legislative branch spending bill late Tuesday afternoon in a joint conference, including a House-backed continuity provision that would provide for expedited elections in the event of mass casualties among the chamber’s Members.

Although the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier struck the continuity provision from its version of the spending bill, House lawmakers succeeded in keeping the measure alive in the compromise legislation, which must now be approved by each chamber.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who chairs his chamber’s Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said Congressional leadership dictated the inclusion of House language, which would mandate special elections within 49 days of an incident in which more than 100 lawmakers were killed.

“Leadership made that decision,” Allard said, citing both Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

“Sen. Frist informed us that it was important that the House move ahead,” added Allard, who said he believes the issue is a House-specific matter that should be decided by that chamber.

Although House lawmakers passed the legislation, authored by Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), as a stand-alone bill in March, the measure subsequently languished in the Senate.

House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) later inserted the measure into his chamber’s version of the spending bill at the request of his leadership.

The continuity provision is just one element of the legislative branch appropriations bill, includes a 4.5 percent increase, about $164 million, over fiscal 2005 spending levels of $3.64 billion.

While the figure is less than the combined $4.03 billion Congressional agencies had sought, Allard characterized the bill as a “fair agreement.”

Similarly, Lewis said: “We’ve made real progress.”

Included in the legislation are $249 million in funds for the Capitol Police.

Although the figure is less than the $290 million the law enforcement agency had sought, it represents an increase of $8 million, about 3.3 percent, over the current $241 million fiscal 2005 budget.

Among the items eliminated for the department’s request is its horse-mounted unit, which will be disbanded as the result of a House-led initiative to eliminate the fledgling division.

While the Capitol Police will continue to employee the seven officers who work in the division, which marked its one-year anniversary in May, the department will be required to transfer its horses and supplies to the U.S. Park Police, which operates its own equestrian division.

Allard, who has spoken in support of the division, stated he was “deeply disappointed” with the decision, asserting it is “a short-sighted agreement we will all regret.”

House lawmakers had initially proposed a minimal decrease in the department’s budget to $240 million, while the Senate allocated $264.6 million in its version of the bill.

Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) defended the allocation, citing recent criticism from the National Fraternal Order of Police over the proposed budget figures.

“To somehow suggest this committee has shortchanged the Capitol Police is a joke,” Obey said. He noted that the department’s budget has grown 180 percent, or $186 million, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Partly accounting for the increase for fiscal 2006: establishment of an Office of Inspector General for the law enforcement agency, a move House officials have said will bring the department into compliance with federal laws already applied to other legislative branch agencies.

Additionally, the Capitol Police will be required to provide regular disbursement reports to Congress detailing spending and receipts.

The Architect of the Capitol will receive $428 million under the legislation, an increase over its current $362 million budget, but below the $506 million the agency had sought.

The allocation includes $42 million to complete the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center — which is estimated to cost $517 million when it opens to the public in late 2006 — as well as $2 million to fund operational costs for the facility to open.

(Citing the CVC funds, Obey said he would not sign the conference report.)

The fiscal 2006 allotment for the visitor center includes $5 million more than the amount requested by Architect Alan Hantman in his initial budget. The Government Accountability Office recommended those additional funds to address unforeseen costs.

Conferees also removed a Senate provision from the bill that would have allow the Architect to create an executive director post to oversee the visitor center.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) noted that House leadership instead favors a “governance board” with hired staff to oversee the CVC.

“There ought to be a joint House-Senate governance board,” LaHood said.

While Allard disagreed with such a proposal — “Frankly, I don’t think we need another committee,” he said — he encouraged his colleagues to work swiftly to set up some kind of oversight for the CVC.

Also funded in the spending bill is the Library of Congress, which would receive a 2.9 percent increase to $561 million from its current $545 million budget.

The Senate had offered the Library $580 million, while the House had proposed $553 million; both figures were below the $628 million sought by LOC officials in their request.

The Government Printing Office would receive an increase to $123 million in the spending bill, an increase over its $120 million fiscal 2005 budget. The agency had requested $131 million from appropriators.

The Congressional Budget Office would receive its full request of $35.9 million in fiscal 2006, an increase of 3.8 percent over its current $34.6 million budget.

Similarly, the GAO would receive an increase of 3.2 percent under the spending bill to $482 million, slightly below it’s $486 million request.