Analysis: Budget bill shows conservative restraint

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and GOP leaders finish a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, following a weekly House Republican Conference meeting. From left are, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif., Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va. The Republicans tied the recent stagnant employment reports to the policies of President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — At an unlikely-to-be-read 1,582 pages, Congress' $1.1 trillion spending bill is precisely the sort of massive legislation that Republicans criticized when they successfully sought power three years ago in the House.

Then add to that the funding included for the implementation of "Obamacare," a particularly galling defeat for the tea party and its supporters who pushed the government into a partial shutdown last fall in an attempt to cut off all support for the health care law.

Yet at its core, the legislation cements the most fundamental accomplishment to date by conservatives in three tumultuous years of divided government. Combined spending for thousands of routine government programs is in a general decline, and it will take a clean sweep by Democrats in some future election before the restraints are likely to be lifted.

"The legislation will continue the downward trend in federal spending to put our nation on a sustainable fiscal path," Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the chairman of the House's appropriations panel, said as the measure was released Monday night.

Like all bipartisan deals, there is also something for Democrats to like — a number of items, actually — even as they participate grudgingly in the retrenchment of programs as varied as parks, education, foreign aid and transportation. "It unwinds some of the damaging cuts caused by sequestration (and) ensures the continuation of critical services that the American people depend on," the White House said in a statement urging lawmakers to approve the bill.

In fact, within the overall framework, each side could point to achievements.

A Democratic summary noted that Republicans had failed in their attempt to block the Justice Department from using funds to challenge state immigration laws, and in their bid to block the administration from issuing certain types of pollution limits on electric utilities.

Republicans tallied their own list. They said they had made sure the administration isn't able to transfer detainees at Guantanamo, Cuba, to the United States, and had denied all funding for high-speed rail, an administration priority that has also been of importance to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Compromise may make for good government, but election campaigns are a different matter.

In a statement released at midday Tuesday, one prominent group with tea party ties urged lawmakers to oppose the bill in part on grounds that it spends too much. "The bill on balance takes the country in the wrong direction, both in terms of policy and overall spending levels," said Heritage Action, one of the groups that marshaled support for last fall's campaign that fought funding for Obamacare.

A second group, Club for Growth, pointed out that the legislation "funds Obamacare, plusses up other wasteful programs and contains dozens of policy riders that can only be described as earmarks."

The plain message from such dissenting organizations is that Republicans who vote for the legislation may well face opponents in this year's primaries, and their challengers will be supported by tea party groups.

That's welcome news to the Democrats, whose general view of Republican primaries is this: The more the merrier.

The politics will be sorted out over the next 10 months.

The budget trend is not in dispute.

In Washington-speak, the programs covered by the bill are referred to as discretionary, subject to year-by-year decisions by lawmakers and the White House. Because they are reviewed annually, they are easier to cut than programs like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, which are generally on autopilot and not subject to yearly spending decisions.

According to the House Appropriations Committee, spending for all defense and domestic programs funded annually — not counting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and emergencies — totaled $1.091 trillion in the budget year that began on Oct. 1, 2009, the last time Democrats controlled Congress and the White House to the end of the 12-month fiscal period.

The total fell to $1.05 trillion the following year, $1.043 trillion the 12 months after and $988 billion in the year that ended last Sept. 30. That level, the result of across-the-board cuts known as a sequester, would have fallen further in the current budget year, to $967 billion. That total was so low that it proved politically unsustainable in the Republican-controlled House, and helped prompt compromise talks with Democrats that resulted in the legislation sealed with a handshake by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Rogers and backed by the White House.

The new total is $1.012 trillion, more than the most conservative Republicans favor — but far lower than four years ago and lower still than it would have been had spending simply risen in step with inflation.

The numbers themselves are so huge they may be hard to fathom, but the general direction isn't.

Spending on these programs was going up when Republicans won control of the House in the election of 2010. It has been going down since.


EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.

An AP News Analysis