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Big Ticket Programs Get Green Light From Key Gov't Committees

By Dan Morgan
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Money for huge defense and energy projects that will soak up tens of billions of dollars over the rest of the decade was approved by key panels on both sides of the Capitol Tuesday, a reminder that budget-cutting fervor has not diminished Congress's traditional interest in big-ticket programs.

On the House side, the Appropriations Committee speedily approved a $244.1 billion defense bill for 1996 that includes $493 million more than President Clinton requested for the B-2 bomber program, an extra $200 million for the F-22 fighter, to be assembled in Marietta, Ga., near the district of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and an additional $600 million for missile defense.

The same bill contains funding for Army's Comanche helicopter, the Marine Corps' V-22 tilt-rotor craft, the Navy's F-18, and adds funds not requested by the Defense Department for Blackhawk and Kiowa helicopters for the Army, and F-15E fighters.

On the Senate side, the energy and water appropriations subcommittee restored $37 million cut by the House for detailed engineering on a $1 billion facility in California at which nuclear weapons could be tested without detonating them underground.

The funding for Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's National Ignition Facility was part of a $20.2 billion spending bill that funds the Energy Department's nuclear weapons programs, along with harbor, river and water projects. But the nuclear accounts fared especially well, garnering some $1 billion more than in the House bill thanks to special circumstances.

Under the allocations worked out between the 13 appropriations subcommittees in the Senate, there is more for defense nuclear spending than in the House bill. Also, Los Alamos and Sandia, two of the three major nuclear weapons laboratories, are located in the home state of Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the energy and water panel.

Domenici's bill beefs up the House allowance for research and development at the labs, and restores $225 million the House cut for partnerships between the laboratories and private companies, aimed at using defense know-how to assist the commercial sector.

But the bill reduces funding for solar and renewable energy research by one-third, and slashes the allocation for nuclear fusion research so deeply that it left uncertain the future of Princeton's plasma physics lab, which once hoped to build a $1 billion fusion reactor with federal help.

In the House Appropriations Committee, efforts by Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., to cut spending for Lockheed-Martin's F-22 fighter, and missile defense initiatives were handily defeated, with numerous Democrats joining Republicans to block the reductions. The vote against cutting the F-22 was 32 to 8, a tribute to the support that even some liberals are willing to give to a project that will provide thousands of jobs nationwide.

Obey warned that the bill was funding too many big-ticket items and would force Congress, under its self-imposed budget restraints, to abandon at least two major weapons programs later. His implication was that the GOP is front-loading the defense spending to curry favor with voters in 1996.

The committee recommended $3 billion for ballistic missile defense, a 25 percent increase above the administration's request. A major beneficiary was the Navy's anti-missile "Upper Tier" program, a priority of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La.