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As government shutdown looms, lawmakers squabbling over policy, not pork

In Congresses of yesteryear, the 11th-hour, must-pass omnibus spending bill typically set off a spike in earmarks or member projects to grease the deal, adding billions to federal deficits.

But the 1,219-page, $1 trillion spending package released by House leaders late Wednesday night is making waves not for its pork projects, but for its member-driven policy riders on issues ranging from travel to Cuba and the funding of abortions to marketing food to children.

The House GOP bill, which was formulated based on ongoing conference negotiations but not yet signed, wraps up the nine remaining annual appropriation bills. Meanwhile, negotiators continue working toward a “megabus” that could pass the Senate.

It’s these policy riders, not the bottom-line spending, that have been the main sticking point in passing the bills needed to keep the government from shutting down. Like member earmarks, the aim of riders is to force on the White House a policy that the president would not otherwise support, using annual funding as leverage.

Senate Democrats have fought hard to derail most of the policy riders in the “megabus”,especially those aiming to curb environmental regulations. But there’s a bumper crop still in the omnibus bill released by House leaders late Wednesday night.

These include:

• Ending $181 million in funding for Department of Energy loan guarantees, including the program that funded Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar energy company.

• Scuttling a Senate provision requiring energy efficiency regulations for televisions and cable boxes.

• Halting new light-bulb efficiency standards.

• Prohibiting federal or local funding for abortions in the District of Columbia.

• Banning funding for the Federal Trade Commission to report on the marketing of food to children, unless they conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

• A mandate to expedite approval for new offshore energy production.

• A provision barring the Department of Health and Human Services from activities that promote gun control.

But the provision that set off the biggest firestorm is one tightening federal rules regarding family travel and remittances to Cuba. The rider, by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida, overturns Obama administration policies that allow Cuban-Americans to visit family in Cuba or send remittances without limit. In a return to Bush-era policies, the rider would limit visits to once every three years and remittances to $1,200 annually.

“If this bill passes, what happens to the 300,000 Cuban-Americans who have already left for the holidays and are in Cuba?” says Rep. Jose Serrano (D) of New York.

“Times have changed,” he adds. “Republicans say that remittances are propping up the government, but it’s more like children getting school supplies.”

House Speaker John Boehner told reporters on Thursday that an omnibus bill will pass in time to avert a government shutdown, after funding for FY 2012 runs out on Friday. “I am confident that the bill will pass in a bipartisan fashion,” he said.

But House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California cautioned that House Republicans “won’t be getting any cooperation from us.”

In a close vote on the first fiscal 2012 spending package in November, more than 100 House Republicans refused to vote for the relatively noncontroversial measure on the grounds that it spent too much.

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