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Latest Budget Skirmishes: From School Lunch to Immigration

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Two young children pass out plates to promote passage of a school nutrition bill in 2010. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Appropriations is supposed to be the exception to the rule that Congress will be minimally productive this year, and the recent flurry of action on the annual money bills has made it appear that way.

Just beneath the surface, though, lies a lengthening list of disagreements over spending priorities and policy shifts. They are not only between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, but also between Congress and the Obama administration.

Half a dozen major confrontations have surfaced just in the past week — even while progress has appeared steady.

Nine of the dozen appropriations bills have at least started down the legislative assembly line. The House is on course to pass its fifth measure this week, and Eric Cantor says moving as many as possible is his main goal before relinquishing the majority leader post at the end of July. The Senate has set the next two weeks aside for debating a package containing three of the politically easier domestic bills.

Yet no one in the know is holding out hope for answering all the myriad where-the-money-goes questions by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year and also when lawmakers plan to pack up for a month of full-time campaigning. That means a continuing resolution will surely have to keep most (if not all) of the government operating at least to the middle of November, when the lame-duck session begins and Republicans know whether they’ll have more power next year.

The end result, for now, is a real sense of disconnect. One the one hand, there’s a superficial steadiness to the appropriations process, a break from many years of chaos from the start. On the other hand, there are plenty of signs that a long period of the customary messiness lies ahead.

Here are five disputes that have recently blossomed, each of which has the potential to complicate this year’s budget debate until its closing days.

Young migrants . It took only a few minutes of discussion before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee agreed last week to freeze the combined budgets for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. But the most expensive domestic spending bill would starve several other areas in order to nearly double funding, to $1.9 billion, for medical care for the unaccompanied child migrants who have been surging across the Mexican border in record numbers.

The money will be a proxy war for the stalled debate over an immigration policy overhaul. Democrats will hold fast to the increase, describing it as the only humane way to respond to the needs of thousands of innocent victims of congressional gridlock. Republicans will try to pare it back, arguing the spending will only exacerbate administration immigration policies that are enticing parents to send their kids into the United States alone and illegally.

School food. The Agriculture spending bill, which the House started debating last week, would permit school districts to opt out of the federal nutrition standards for their cafeteria food — if administrators could prove that providing the requisite healthy meals would create a financial burden. Republicans who wrote the bill say there’s no point insisting that schools boost their taxpayer spending on lunches that kids can’t stand and just throw away. Democrats expect they’ll lose a floor vote to delete the opt-out language when debate resumes later this summer.

The companion Senate bill wouldn’t allow similar waivers. Democrats say the school nutrition rules are essential for combating childhood obesity — and they wonder aloud whether the GOP effort is really about making first lady Michelle Obama an emblem of “big brother” government gone too far. President Barack Obama is threatening to veto the whole bill if the waivers language survives.

TIGER money. The Transportation-HUD measure the House passed last week reflects GOP spending priorities by providing $100 million for so-called TIGER grants — just one-sixth of what’s allocated this year. Senate Democrats are likely to insist on providing at least as much as the current levels, resurrecting one of the more bitter and intractable fights from last year’s budget showdown.

The grants were created under the 2009 economic stimulus as a competition for local governments hoping to jumpstart public works projects, and many mayors and state transportation secretaries say they have been one of the bigger job-creation boons attributable to this president. Republicans deride the grant program as more akin to a mismanaged boondoggle and ideally would like to kill the tigers altogether.

Safe trucking. The transportation and housing bill approved last week by Senate Appropriations gave a handful of big wins to the trucking lobby, which consumer groups and some Democrats are vowing to fight to the end.

One provision would suspend federal rules requiring truckers to be off the road between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on two consecutive nights before they start a new 60-hour driving tour. Another provision could allow truckers to take shorter breaks when they’re on the road. Trucking companies and pro-business lawmakers say consumers will benefit because more rigs will be on the road at off-peak times but off the road during rush hours. The opposite argument is that weary drivers on the highway overnight can pose a big public safety threat.

Medical marijuana. The best-known of these early policy disputes is about whether the Justice Department should be prevented from enforcing federal marijuana laws in the nearly two dozen states in which the drug has been legalized for medical purposes.

The House inspired headlines last month, when 170 Democrats and 49 Republicans voted to tell the federal agents to back off. Similar votes in the previous seven years had turned out differently, so the solid bipartisan majority was seen as a watershed victory for those urging the acceptance of pot in American life. But the Senate has taken no such vote. Its companion Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill is silent on medicinal marijuana, and with so many senators in tough races for re-election there may be bipartisan interest in keeping it that way.

More disputes loom just ahead, one of which stands to become the biggest of the year. The best opening Republicans have to thwart new rules lowering carbon emissions at power plants is to deny the EPA the money it needs to carry out the regulations. The GOP House almost certainly has the votes to move against the “war on coal” in the Interior-Environment spending bill. Democratic leaders in the Senate cannot yet be confident they have the votes to keep President Barack Obama’s signature second-term environmental initiative intact.

As with so much else, it will take an election to push this and the other disputes to a resolution.