WASHINGTON (JTA) – President George W. Bush signed a $555 billion omnibus spending bill that includes funding for Israel, the Palestinians and domestic programs championed by Jewish groups – but he also expressed strong qualifications about some of its provisions, including those of concern to Jews.
The president attacked the inclusion into the bill of thousands of earmarks – spending designated by individual lawmakers for specific projects and the mechanism used to fund an array of Jewish elderly programs.
Among the expenditures included in the bill signed Wednesday were:
* Defense assistance for Israel amounting to $2.38 billion, as well as $39.6 million in assistance for absorbing refugees. That’s down from the $2.4 billion and $40 million originally allocated, reflecting the across-the-board 0.81 percent cut Bush requested to control funding. Next year, the government is set to hike defense assistance to Israel to $3 billion.
* A ceiling of $218.5 million in assistance for the Palestinian Authority, which is just over half the $410 million Bush asked for, and comes with strict oversight provisions.
* Nine million dollars in funding for groups promoting Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab coexistence. The Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of Jewish-Arab “people to people” groups, led lobbying for these funds, which were championed by a bipartisan slate of lawmakers in both houses.
* Fifteen million dollars in homeland security funds for non-profits. The lion’s share of these funds, first introduced in 2005, have gone to Jewish groups for protective measures, such as improved entrance barriers to communal buildings. The United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group led a battery of Jewish groups that lobbied for these funds, among them the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) spearheaded the bill in Congress.
* Five million dollars for 19 Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, an elderly care program pioneered by UJC, as well as $300,000 for two UJC-designed projects in New Haven, Conn. and Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C. that pioneer the “Family Caregiver Access Network.” The program is aimed at facilitating access to information and services for people who opt to be primary caregivers for elderly members of their family.
The NORCs and FCAN expenditures are among thousands of earmarks written into the bill that were opposed by Bush.
In his signing statement, Bush said he was “disappointed in the way the Congress compiled this legislation, including abandoning the goal I set early this year to reduce the number and cost of earmarks by half.”
He said the earmarks cost $10 billion. The Democratic-led Congress says that is an overestimate.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress say earmarks fund critical local projects like hospitals and road repair.
A White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said Bush directed his budget director, Jim Nussle, to “look at avenues by which the federal government can address those earmarks.”
Stanzel and others have said Bush especially opposes earmarks “dropped” into the bill “late at night,” referring to expenditures authorized after debates end and during conference between the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.
In an internal memo, UJC’s top lobbyist, Robert Goldberg, said that objection does not apply to the expenditures the federation umbrella group championed. “I can tell you that your projects were contained within the appropriations bills, and therefore, would NOT be subject to limitation or elimination by the administration, under this scenario,” he wrote.
In any case, it is unclear how Bush could stop what is a constitutional prerogative of Congress once he opted not to veto the entire bill.
Also of interest, Bush said in his signing statement that the bill included provisions “that might be construed to be inconsistent with my Constitutional responsibilities. To avoid such potential infirmities, the executive branch will interpret and construe such provisions in the same manner as I have previously stated in regard to similar provisions.”
Bush did not elaborate, but he and his predecessors have ignored congressional directives not to use national security waivers to bypass congressional oversight on foreign spending.
One such directive in the current spending bill applies to the money for the Palestinians.
Sources on Capitol Hill said the Democratic leadership targeted Bush’s favored programs for cuts, which explains in part the low figure for Palestinian assistance. Democrats were furious with Bush’s insistence on cutting back after years of free spending with Republican-led Congresses, the Democratic sources said.
Also Wednesday, Bush signed a terrorism insurance bill that includes a provision banning travel insurers from denying coverage to those who have traveled to Israel or intend to do so.