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Byrd Fires Warning on Spending

In an apparent attempt to head off conservative Republicans intent on restraining Congressional spending, Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) is circulating a memo warning that without increased funding for some programs the federal government may have to lay off or furlough thousands of key homeland security, consumer safety and health care personnel.

With the current stopgap funding measure set to expire Feb. 15, Byrd and House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) are gearing up for a fight with Republicans over how to make sure that 13 Cabinet agencies, Congress and countless independent government agencies continue to operate for the remainder of fiscal 2007, which ends Sept. 30. Congress already has approved fiscal 2007 funding for the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

The current continuing resolution freezes federal spending at fiscal 2006 levels, and conservative Senators such as Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have pushed to keep the government funded at 2006 levels for the remainder of the fiscal year to trim as much as $7 billion from the discretionary spending budget.

But the Byrd memo predicts that if Congress maintains those levels for the remainder of fiscal 2007, “it would result in thousands of layoffs in the public and private sectors; it would cut off health care for members of America’s Armed Forces; and it would close the doors to medical care for thousands of our veterans.”

One skeptical Senate GOP aide said the memo is just hyperbole from appropriators who consistently resist efforts to rein in Congressional spending.

“This is like the appropriator who cried ‘wolf’ in the sense that they say this year after year whenever a CR is put in place,” the aide said. “The wild accusations they make never come to pass.”

DeMint said on the Senate floor Jan. 11 that appropriators could not be believed.

“You will notice, despite what has been said, we passed a continuing resolution at the end of last year and didn’t pass our appropriation bills. Of course, as you look around, you see the country is still operating just fine,” DeMint said. He added, “I would make the case we need a system that, if we are not able to have ample debate and discussion about appropriations, we don’t have all this fanfare about closing down the government every year and scaring our senior citizens and our veterans that something is not going to come that they need.”

Still, Byrd’s memo provides a useful window into the programs and government offices likely to see modest increases in a $463 billion 2007 joint spending resolution, which could be on the House floor as early as next Wednesday.

Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin stopped short of saying the memo reflected how the joint resolution would be structured, but noted, “The areas highlighted in this document are certainly areas of concern.”

For example, the memo warns that the Food Safety and Inspection Service would have to begin furloughing its entire staff beginning the first week of September, an action that could result in the shuttering of 6,000 meat and poultry processing plants across the country because FSIS staff would not be on site.

The document does not say how much money it would take to keep the FSIS up and running through the end of September.

Meanwhile, Byrd’s office estimates that the FBI would be $80 million short, face a yearlong hiring freeze, and have to fire some special agents, intelligence analysts and other support staff if forced to operate under fiscal 2006 funding levels.

Similarly, the daily operations budget of the Army Corps of Engineers would face a $22 million shortfall — requiring the Corps to fire 250 of its 900-person staff, according to Byrd’s office. And the federal judiciary would have to trim its staff by 2,500 — a scenario that could affect parole officers’ capacity to track convicted felons, the memo noted.

The Social Security Administration would have to furlough 65,000 employees for more than a week if the $180 million projected shortfall under 2006 levels were allowed to continue, the memo asserts. Plus, the 1-800-Medicare call center likely would have to close down for the “final months of the fiscal year,” the document says.

The biggest ticket item in the memo, however, is the $3.2 billion needed to shore up veterans’ medical care — a figure that has been known for months.

Though the memo plays up the impact of funding shortfalls on national security, the elderly and veterans health care, a number of priorities championed by the new Democratic majority are highlighted as well.

For example, the document notes that implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act would remain at half the authorized level and that funding for Pell Grants for higher education would be frozen for the fifth year in a row.

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