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As GOP Budget Ax Falls, Some Programs Escape : Congress: Veterans benefits, space station are among survivors. Parochial politics spared other projects.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Republicans in Congress have clear-cut their way through a forest of federal programs in this summer’s budget debate. But amid the pile of programs killed or slashed, a handful are standing tall in the austere spending bills now making their way through Congress.

Veterans benefits have escaped the reductions that Congress is visiting on support for the poor. The House voted to boost highway programs while slashing urban mass transit subsidies. The expensive space station was left largely unscathed.

A look at the federal programs that so far have escaped the budget ax--or even received spending increases--provides insight into what Republicans think are appropriate federal activities in their stripped-down view of government.

It also provides a window on the other forces--political, geographic and personal--that go into congressional budget-making. Some programs are flourishing not so much because they fit Republican ideology but because they benefit conservative regions of the country or are favored by well-positioned members of Congress.

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A close look at the appropriations bills also reveals warning signs for the GOP: As hard as these bills were to pass, they were probably easy compared to the legislation Congress will have to draft this fall to reduce Medicare’s growth by $270 billion over the next seven years. Having so far spared programs such as highway and veterans aid, which enjoy broad middle-class support, Republicans have yet to swing the ax at a tree that casts a shadow as long as Medicare’s.

What’s more, this fall’s proposals to rein in Medicare, farm programs and other entitlements will reach more deeply and directly into the Republicans’ suburban and rural constituencies than the more narrowly targeted programs cut in this summer’s appropriations bills.

“In relatively affluent or rural districts, they are much less dependent on direct federal spending,” said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento). “It’s not until you get to entitlement programs do you get their attention.”

Before leaving Washington last week for a monthlong recess, the House of Representatives approved 11 of the 13 appropriations bills needed to keep the government running after the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. The Senate passed seven before adjourning Friday.

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Many of the programs that were awarded spending increases were traditional GOP favorites. The military construction budget, which pays for the operation and maintenance of defense bases, will go up about 25%, and other defense spending will see no major cuts.

The House approved a $1-billion increase for crime-fighting, and added $730 million to crack down on illegal immigration. Block grants to states for health and other social services fared well compared with other social programs.

“It shows the historic differences between the parties,” said Joseph White, a budget expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “There’s more money for law and order than for being nice to the poor.”

Less obvious, however, is why the GOP was so generous to the National Institutes of Health--an $11-billion group of agencies that support biomedical research--and other basic science programs. The NIH, which the House Appropriations Committee called “an important investment in the future health and economic well-being of our nation,” would get a 6% increase in a spending bill that would cut other labor, health and education programs by an average of about 10%.

That increase is, in part, a tribute to the influence of Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), chairman of the subcommittee that wrote the bill and a longtime promoter of the NIH. That sweetener helped Porter swallow some bitter medicine: He is a moderate Republican who opposed many provisions of the bill that his subcommittee drafted, but he stuck with the GOP leadership in pushing the measure through to passage.

Another program with friends in high places--and money to show for it--is the proposed space station. The chairman of the subcommittee that handles funding for space programs is Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), a leading defender of the multibillion-dollar project that employs tens of thousands of Californians.

Lewis managed to protect the space station’s $2.1-billion pot of money despite fierce competition for dollars in a bill that finances housing, environment and veterans programs in addition to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Another powerful defender of the program is House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), whose district in the Houston area is home to many employees of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Both the NIH and the space station also benefited from strong personal support from House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who early on called a meeting of key lawmakers to drum up support for science programs that tap into his taste for cutting-edge technology.

The comparatively generous treatment of veterans programs was a tribute to the bipartisan clout of the veterans lobby, an exceedingly well-organized force that makes its voice heard in every district of the country, Republican and Democrat.

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“Anyone who is willing to look knows there is a sacred cow out there,” said Lewis, whose subcommittee also handles veterans programs. “We shake in our boots even thinking about reducing that spending.”

When Lewis’ subcommittee approved a modest cut in veterans programs earlier this year as part of the Republicans’ first spending-cut package, it provoked a deluge of protest that threatened to bring down the entire bill. The money was restored when the measure was brought to the House floor.

Another spending increase that enjoyed bipartisan support hit lawmakers closer to home. Even as the House voted to trim the legislative branch budget by abolishing or scaling back several of its research and investigative arms, it managed to find more money for House members’ personal staff and office allowances, and for the offices of the House leadership.

Republicans made much of the fact that they were cutting House committee staff by one-third, but those cuts fell mostly on Democratic aides who lost their jobs when the GOP took control of Congress.

In other areas, some analysts say, House Republicans’ funding decisions seem to channel money away from big cities, which tend to be represented by Democrats, while giving gentler treatment to suburban and rural areas, where Republicans dominate. When the House passed its transportation appropriation bill, it made deep cuts in urban mass transit even as it increased highway funding from $17.2 billion to $18 billion.

“We all have highways, but we Democrats have more of the transit districts,” Fazio said.

And while Republicans were cutting aid for educating poor children, which is especially important to big-city school districts, many conservatives in the House pushed to restore funding for “impact aid"--a special subsidy for school districts near military bases, many of which are represented by Republicans.


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