WASHINGTON – A massive grab bag of federal spending with money for New Mexico’s weapons labs, arts programs, firefighting efforts and more cleared the U.S. House on Wednesday and is headed for likely passage in the Senate today.
The $1.1 trillion spending commitment fleshes out 11 unfinished appropriations bills pending in Congress for 2017 and reflects priorities ranging from the military to health research, heating assistance for poor Americans and disaster relief for war-torn Sudan and Somalia.
The bill would provide $50 million for the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project and continued funding for the popular Community Development Block Grant program that helps cities and towns pay for local projects.
New Mexico’s House Democrats – Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham – voted for the spending bill Wednesday, and Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have said they also will vote in favor when the bill arrives on the Senate floor, likely today. Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico’s only Republican in Washington, voted against the spending plan.
Without offering specifics, Pearce said the bill passed by the Republican-controlled House contained “frivolous” spending that reflected “politics in Washington,” not the needs of everyday Americans.
“It’s truly unfortunate that the House was unable to produce a budget plan that adequately supports the policies and priorities of the people who elected us to get the job done,” Pearce said.
While the legislation falls far short of President Donald Trump’s preferred spending amounts for the military and border security, it contains increases in both areas and represents a status quo or more approach to funding much of the rest of federal government.
Congressional Republicans lauded the bill’s increased border and military spending, but the conservative Heritage Action group in Washington said it “woefully fails the test of fiscal responsibility and does not advance important conservative policies.”
Democrats described the deal as a victory for a wide array of their spending priorities.
“It’s good for New Mexico, and it’s good for the country,” Udall, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which crafted the budget document, told the Journal on Wednesday. “We (Democrats) made our principles clear. We were really firm that we were opposed to throwing billions of dollars away on a border wall that even some Republicans didn’t want. We got a good result. No one wanted a shutdown.”
Although the bill doesn’t contain money explicitly for Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border, it does include $1.5 billion for “enhanced border security.” It directs the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to have “obligation plans” for the cash infusion within 45 days of the bill’s enactment.
Of the $1.5 billion, the legislation sets aside $487 million for “Border Security Assets and Infrastructure,” but it’s unclear how much of that amount would be spent in New Mexico.
“This legislation will allow us to substantially strengthen the border,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “It contains the largest increase in border-security resources in a decade, allowing us to address high-priority security needs, crack down on illegal border crossings, and strengthen the border with everything from upgraded physical infrastructure to high-tech biometric and surveillance technology.”
Overall, the Department of the Interior – an agency with a large presence in New Mexico – would get a small budget bump, from $12 billion in 2016 to $12.2 billion in 2017. The bulk of that increase is in the budgets of the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Udall said he persuaded congressional negotiators to aside $407 million in emergency funding to protect Western communities from the most devastating wildfires. The bill also contains $160 million to combat the prescription opioid addiction epidemic nationwide, and some of the strongest funding in years for the Land and Water Conservation Fund – including $2 million for acquisitions in Rio Grande del Norte and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks national monuments.
The total 2017 budget for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons programs, including those at Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, is set at $12.9 billion, an increase of $400 million over current-year spending.
Waste cleanup at Los Alamos is set at $194 million in the 2017 spending bill, an increase of $9 million over current-year spending and $5 million more than Trump’s request.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad would receive $324 million, or $53 million more than Trump asked for in his first budget proposal earlier this year. That amount includes nearly $27 million to settle with New Mexico over a 2014 accident that shut down the facility for three years.
Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, noted that the bill does not include any money to open the long-closed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Las Vegas, Nev., which the Trump administration has proposed reopening. It also does not contain money for construction of a repository for high-level defense nuclear waste in New Mexico.
The Environmental Protection Agency is largely spared in the 2017 budget compromise, taking a cut of just 1 percent. But the White House has suggested steep cuts for water, renewable energy, national parks, wildlife and other programs next year.
The White House has also proposed eliminating federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but each agency would get a $2 million increase under the latest spending bill, bringing their respective budgets to $150 million in total. The NEA helps underwrite dozens of arts programs in New Mexico.
“This bill puts us in a strong position as we start working on the 2018 appropriations bill … and that will likely be a tougher fight,” Udall said.
Congress will need to clear the 2017 spending package before current appropriations expire under a continuing resolution at midnight Friday.