(Jun 20, 2007)

Senate Democrats approve higher budget for environmental programs

By Andrew Taylor
From AP

WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate Democrats pressed for budget increases for party priorities such as health, special education and medical research Tuesday as an appropriations panel approved a $152 billion spending bill.

Earlier, a Senate panel responsible for environmental and public lands programs approved a $27.2 billion measure awarding increases to the National Parks system, Indian health programs and clean water projects.

Both bills enjoyed unanimous support within the collegial confines of the Senate subcommittees, where staunch conservatives such as Larry Craig, R-Idaho and reliable liberals like Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, joined forces to add to domestic accounts popular with lawmakers in both parties.

The health and education funding measure, the largest domestic funding bill, has been a favorite target of President Bush, whose budget is seeking cuts of more than $4 billion from current levels.

Instead, Democrats _ without dissent from panel Republicans _ added more than $10 billion to Bush's request.

That allowed for a $1 billion increase over current funding for the National Institutes of Health, about 3 percent. Funding for community health centers would go up 13 percent, and grants to states for programs for special needs children would grow by 7 percent, or $750 million.

Both Harkin and top panel Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania believe the increases for programs under the health and education bill are long overdue and that as such the measure is a ''lean'' bill, despite the increases.

The environmental and public land bill would provide $1.5 billion more than Bush requested for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. Lawmakers in both parties have griped about budget shortfalls for public lands and environmental protection under the Bush administration.

In that vein, the Senate bill would boost U.S. Forest service funding by 10 percent over Bush's request, fulfilling demands from westerners for improvements in firefighting a fire prevention.

The Indian Health Service would receive a 6 percent budget hike.

The legislation also weighs in on a long-standing battle over oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Democrats are pressing to force oil companies benefiting from near-record gasoline prices to renegotiate leases issued in the late-1990s.

The Interior Department at that time gave oil companies a break on royalties as incentive for deep-water drilling when prices were lower. Unlike more recent leases, royalties are not pegged to price increases, which could cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

The Senate measure would prohibit oil companies that refuse to renegotiate the earlier leases from winning new ones.

Meanwhile, in the House, conservatives lost by wide margins on votes to trim funding from a popular bill funding energy programs and Army Corps of engineers water projects.

The underlying energy and water bill Democrats would give big increases to programs aimed at making cars and buildings more energy efficient and would boost research and development of alternative energy sources. It also rejects the Bush administration's plans to develop a new, sturdier nuclear warhead.

Lawmakers say it would send the wrong signal to the world on nuclear nonproliferation and should not be pursued before a comprehensive strategy on future nuclear weapons needs is developed.

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