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GOP Hits Democrats’ Projects in Labor-HHS Bill

In their ongoing quest to burnish their fiscal conservative credentials, Senate Republicans will heap criticism on the majority’s priorities during this week’s debate on a spending bill funding Democrats’ pet projects and programs in health, labor and education.

With Republicans still smarting from the flap they endured in the previous Congress over earmarks, they’re hoping this week that references to their controversial “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska will be replaced by the Democrats’$1 million set aside for a GOP-dubbed “Hippie Museum” in upstate New York.

Additionally, Republicans have seized on Democrats’ decision to cut $2 million from a Labor Department office that investigates union corruption while increasing funding for offices that go after employers for violating labor laws.

“What we learned from the Bridge to Nowhere is that it isn’t necessarily about the overall spending in the bills. It’s the individual instances of waste and abuse that infuriate taxpayers, and we’re hoping to capitalize on that,” one Senate GOP leadership aide said.

Of course, Republicans also will be loudly criticizing what they consider excessive spending in the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies appropriations bill. Democrats want to spend a total of $152 billion on the three agencies — about $9 billion more than the president requested.

As the largest domestic spending bill, Labor-HHS also is perhaps the one spending measure that provides the brightest line between the two parties’ ideologies, with Democrats promoting government social programs and Republicans resisting them.

For their part, Democrats said Republicans oppose the bill at their own peril and drew parallels to the public outcry over President Bush’s veto of a bipartisan bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“After the veto on the SCHIP bill, they don’t want to follow the president’s lead on this bill,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Appropriations Labor-HHS panel.

Harkin also criticized the president for threatening to veto his bill, considering that “in the last five years, every bill we’ve had under [Republican majorities] has gone over his request, and he never vetoed them.”

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed a familiar Democratic refrain: “President Bush is standing in the way of programs vital to our nation’s future. He has threatened to veto this bill in the name of fiscal responsibility while asking for billions of dollars to continue his flawed Iraq strategy.”

Still, Republicans see a potential winner in fighting the Labor-HHS bill, and they’re likely to replay a procedural tactic they attempted against the spending bill for Commerce, Justice and science programs earlier this week.

The motion to recommit the CJS bill to committee in order to bring the overall spending down to the president’s level failed 44-50 on Tuesday, but Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said it “clearly” showed that Republicans have more than the 34 votes need to sustain a veto.

“If Republicans can’t sustain a presidential veto of an egregious spending bill, we might as well just go ahead and all leave because we’d have no mission in life,” Lott said Wednesday. “The one thing that unites Republicans is fiscal responsibility. That’s why that vote yesterday was important.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) will play a familiar role in the debate by sponsoring a handful of amendments to cut earmarks for items such as the “Hippie Museum” on the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival, $1.5 million set aside for the AFL-CIO’s Working for America Institute and $100,000 for an aquarium in Vermont. Rather than cut the funding out of the bill completely, Coburn would redirect the spending to things like children’s health care.

Plus, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is going after what many Republicans see as a sop by Democrats to their union allies. Sessions’ amendment would restore the $2 million the Labor-HHS bill would cut from the Office of Labor Management Standards, which requires unions to report on their stewardship of union funds as well as investigates allegations of corruption.

“It is useful to point out, with all of the interest in how Members of Congress respond to those who help them in their campaigns, that there is connection,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said.

But Harkin’s office defended the cut, saying Bush’s anti-union posture led him to increase funding for OLMS by 50 percent over the past six years, which allowed the office to hire 100 additional staffers, while at the same time funding was reduced for worker-safety programs.

“While the Labor Department’s principal goal is to provide healthy and safe working conditions for Americans, the Bush administration has chosen to focus its resources on going after members of labor unions,” Harkin spokeswoman Semonti Mustaphi said. She added that Harkin’s bill restores Bush administration cuts to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, “especially in light of recent mine tragedies.”

As of press time it was not clear when the Senate would vote on the Sessions amendment, though it appeared likely to occur today.

Democrats did dodge one potentially divisive political fight Wednesday by pulling out language that would have overturned Bush’s limited stem-cell research program.

“That pulled out the biggest substantive controversy,” Lott said, though he added that Republicans were unlikely to agree to a quick resolution to the bill this week and that, “You can’t do a bill this big in two days.”

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