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For a Fiscal Conservative, Spending at Home Passes the Test

Tim Huelskamp of Kansas has been one of the most vocal tea-party-backed conservatives in the House, but his calls to shrink the size of government didn’t apply when it came to bringing a new Department of Homeland Security lab to his district.

Just as lawmakers used to promote earmarks, Huelskamp and the rest of Kansas’ GOP delegation have touted the potential economic benefits of bringing the animal disease research facility to Kansas.

About $404 million for construction of the lab in Manhattan, Kan., was included in the fiscal 2014 Homeland Security bill (HR 2217) that the House passed this week; Huelskamp and other Kansas Republicans fought back attempts to drop the funding from the bill and keep the veterinary research facility at a site on Long Island, N.Y.

“As a Kansas farmer and rancher, I recognize the critical damage that would be done to our livestock industries” if work doesn’t go forward on the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, Huelskamp said on the floor Wednesday. “Indeed, shovels are being turned in Manhattan, Kansas, today.”

In defending what amounts to a bonanza for his district, Huelskamp was pushing to preserve a spending project against New York Democrat Timothy H. Bishop, who complained that a “boondoggle” on the Plains would simply duplicate some of the work that is being done at a site in his Long Island district.

“I am wondering where the deficit hawks are,” Bishop said. “If we’re looking to cut spending, here’s an easy $404 million.”

The fight with a Democrat over a large infusion of government spending for a single project marks an odd turn for Huelskamp, who drew sharp criticism in his district last year for voting against a bill that included money for the project.

The second-term lawmaker also ran afoul of the GOP last year, after rejecting as insufficiently conservative the budget resolution from House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. GOP leaders later stripped him of his seat on Ryan’s committee. In January, he was a vocal critic of the big Superstorm Sandy aid package (113-2), arguing that the $50 billion in relief was not all emergency money that would be immediately used.

The Kansas lab would be a boon for a city with a population of about 54,000. In a January release, the delegation stressed the economic benefits of the facility, saying it would generate about 757 construction jobs and 326 permanent jobs, giving it an economic impact of about $3.5 billion on Kansas in its first 20 years.

The House’s Homeland Security spending bill would make the $404 million available through the end of September 2018, a fairly standard approach to funding large-scale construction.

In an interview, Huelskamp said he is supporting the lab as an important national security need, not because it benefits his district. The Kansas lab is needed to replace an aging facility on Plum Island, N.Y., and will help protect the United States against potentially costly livestock illnesses such as foot-and-mouth disease. He said fellow lawmakers will need to prove their cases for spending in their districts this way in order to win his support for spending.

“That’s the kind of argument I expect my colleagues to make,” Huelskamp said.

Huelskamp had very little to do with securing the lab for Kansas. The search for a replacement to the Plum Island facility began in the mid-2000s, and it took prodding by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations to get the project even as far as an official January 2013 handoff of land for the new facility.

Huelskamp’s active support this year comes after he voted in 2012 against a fiscal 2013 Homeland Security spending bill that included $75 million for the new lab, a vote that reverberated around the state.

The Wichita Eagle’s website last year ran a blog post titled “Huelskamp Off to Bad Start on NBAF” and quoted the lawmaker saying he had rejected the spending bill on the passage vote only because it included “$5 billion in unpaid-for disaster funding.” The blog reported that the president of the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce told a local publication that Huelskamp is “going to have to demonstrate leadership on the issue.”

On Wednesday, Huelskamp voted for the fiscal 2014 Homeland Security bill, and he fought an amendment that sought to strip the funding for the Kansas lab.

The House easily turned back, 80-345, the bid by Bishop to strip away the funding. David E. Price of North Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, told Bishop on Wednesday night that he opposed the amendment, saying recent studies had addressed many of the pending concerns about the site. The Obama administration appears fully committed to this choice, having requested $714 million for the lab in fiscal 2014.

“The longer we wait, the more costly its construction will be and the more costly it will be to continue to maintain the Plum Island facility,” Price said.

Bishop argues that the cost estimate for the Kansas lab has reached $1 billion and says there are cheaper ways to address the scientific and security needs. He said he was surprised that only 11 Republicans voted for his amendment.

Annie Shuppy contributed to this report.

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