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Tribal funding caught in budget battle

WASHINGTON - As Congress struggles to conclude work on FY2001 appropriations bills, a number of Indian programs are caught in the crossfire between Democrats and Republicans.

House and Senate negotiators had agreed on final FY2001 Commerce, Justice, and State and Education appropriations bills, however, the president rejected the compromise, leaving a variety of Indian programs to be funded at current levels.

President Clinton accused the Republican-controlled Congress of submitting to "special interest," while the GOP accused the White House of pursuing a government shutdown in an election year.

President Clinton vetoed a bill that would have allowed a congressional pay raise after House Republican leaders unexpectedly rejected an agreement on education funding, bringing budget talks to an end and the possibility of a post-election session to finish business.

"I cannot in good conscience sign a bill that funds the operation of the Congress and the White House before funding our classrooms, fixing our schools and protecting our workers," Clinton said in a written statement.

Caught in the budget battle is critical funding for tribal law enforcement and economic development. Under the current bill, the funding level for the Department of Justice Indian Country Law Enforcement Programs is $104.5 million, compared to the president's request of $173 million. This year's spending level is $91.5 million.

Combined with the funding approved as part of the FY2001 Interior Appropriations bill, the total funding for law enforcement in FY2001 would be $254.1 million, but those levels will not be enacted until the president signs the Department of Justice funding bill.

Under the Department of Commerce, and the House and Senate agreement, the Economic Development Administration would receive $412 million for FY2001.

This is more than the president's request of $408 million and both the original House and Senate marks. However, the conference report does not provide any funding for the Native American Economic Development Program and specifically states that the "conference agreement does not include set-aside funding for specific sections or populations that were requested in the budget."

The spending levels for programs under the Small Business Administration varied, but, there were no set asides for Indian programs.

The FY2001 Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations bill also includes a scaled-down state wildlife grants program. However, during the final hours of conference negotiations, an important tribal set aside for that program was also removed from the bill. Tribal leaders have asked that the president insist that the provision be restored during negotiations to produce a bill he is willing to sign into law.

It has been reported that House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas, has been advising Republicans to pursue a "veto strategy" that would force the president to veto some remaining domestic spending bills to highlight differences between Republicans and Democrats to energize voters during the election.

The Republican leadership has made it clear that battling the president through election day is preferable to making deals which compromise its position. Congress is expected to continue budget deliberations when it returns after the election.