Senate debate today on the $152 billion FY08 Labor-HHS appropriations bill focused on earmarks, as leaders sought to churn through amendments with a goal of final passage as early as Friday. President Bush has threatened to veto the measure, which is $11 billion above his request. That makes up about half of the overall spending differences between Bush and the Democratic Congress, and the bill represents the bulk of the social programs Democrats say draw a clear distinction between their priorities and Bush's. Democrats plan to make the bill the first veto bait for Bush among the FY08 spending measures. "This would be a good one to send to him because half of what he's complaining about in actual dollars is in this bill,"Majority Leader Reid said on the floor. Republicans took aim at $1 million for an arts center in upstate New York to house an exhibit on the 1969 Woodstock music festival, as well as a project not even in the Senate bill -- $2 million requested by House Ways and Means Chairman Rangel in the House version for a building named after him at City College of New York.

An amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to prevent House-Senate negotiators from funding Rangel's earmark failed on a 61-34 vote. DeMint said it was earmarks like Rangel's that "have discredited this body with the American people." Democrats argued it was pointless for DeMint to try to block a project not even funded in the Senate version and conferees would work their will. DeMint replied that the Senate this year accepted a similar amendment blocking funds in the House's Iraq war supplemental to compensate spinach growers hurt by last year's recall; House lawmakers eventually agreed to drop the provision.

The other earmark Republicans sought to eliminate, headed for a vote later today, was the money for Bethel Performing Arts Center in Liberty, N.Y., requested by New York Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The project was in part targeted after published reports indicated that the funding, which would help establish a museum with a Woodstock-focused exhibit, was requested by a top contributor to both senators. But the amendment's sponsors, Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., were careful to steer clear of allegations of impropriety, instead suggesting the funds were an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars. Their amendment would divert the $1 million to the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant program. "Should this be a priority for this body over the priority of women and children?" Coburn asked.

Schumer, who was on the floor to defend the earmark, said it was among the top priorities submitted by Sullivan County, N.Y., an economically distressed area that has seen a decline in the last half-century since its heyday as a vacation spot in the Catskill Mountains. "It's an area that needs help. When you ask the people what's the one thing they need, it's jobs. Town and local officials have a better idea what would create jobs in Sullivan County than the senator from Oklahoma and the senator from Arizona," Schumer said.

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