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Lawmakers include FBI project in massive federal spending bill

Congress unveils spending bill with support for Maryland.

The $1.1 trillion budget bill that lawmakers are expected to approve this week includes hundreds of millions in new spending for Maryland — underscoring the influence Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is exerting in her final months in office.

The measure, unveiled by congressional leaders early Wednesday, includes $390 million for a new FBI headquarters that Maryland officials are trying to land for Prince George's County, billions more for medical research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and a large increase for land conservation to help the Chesapeake Bay.

For Mikulski, the measure could be a last hurrah after nearly 30 years on the Senate Appropriations Committee. The 79-year-old Democrat announced in March that she would retire at the end of her term in 2017.

In a celebratory news conference on Capitol Hill with other members of Maryland's delegation, Mikulski said her decision to retire "didn't mean that I was going to go dainty on anybody."

The bipartisan budget agreement, she said, meant "no shutdown, no slam down and we will be able to do the people's business of governing."

Congressional leaders expressed confidence in the deal, but there is no guarantee the measure will win approval. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the bill will be brought to the floor for a vote on Friday, the day lawmakers are scheduled to leave for their Christmas recess. The Senate would take it up next.

"In divided government, you don't get everything you want," Ryan told reporters. "This is a bipartisan compromise … and I understand that some of the people don't like some of the aspects of this."

Some House conservatives expressed reservations about the spending bill, meaning Republican leaders might need votes from Democrats to approve it.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress — and a member of the House Appropriations Committee — said through a spokeswoman that he is still reviewing the bill.

Leaders unveiled the spending bill in tandem with legislation to extend dozens of tax breaks — many of them permanently — at a cost of about $650 billion over 10 years. Folded into the package is language to lift a four-decade ban on exporting crude oil from the United States, a provision Republicans touted as a major victory.

The move drew criticism from some Democrats, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.

"Given that this is such a monumental decision, it astonishes me that the Senate would move forward after so few hearings on the subject," Cardin said.

He said he supports other provisions in the bill, including the FBI funding.

The legislation was full of items for Maryland — so many, in fact, that Mikulski's office sent two dozen press releases Wednesday to tout different provisions.

The NIH would receive a $2 billion bump, the largest funding increase for that agency in years. The Social Security Administration, based in Woodlawn, would receive $150 million for renovations. Fort Meade would get nearly $35 million for new, wider access control points in an effort to reduce traffic congestion on adjacent roads.

The most unexpected issue was the money for the FBI building, which came during an increasingly voluble debate over how the costly project will be financed.

The agency plans to move out of its aging headquarters in Downtown Washington's J. Edgar Hoover Building. Maryland and Virginia are competing for the new headquarters — and its 11,000 jobs — and Mikulski has made luring the agency a priority of her remaining months in office.

The legislation does not direct the Obama administration where to locate the headquarters. That decision still resides with the General Services Administration, which acts as the government's landlord and real estate agent.

"The FBI needs to move," Mikulski said. "It needs to move out of the Hoover building because it's dated, it's dysfunctional and even dangerous."

Given considerable uncertainty over how the FBI deal might be structured, it's not yet clear how the $390 million would be spent. The bill would allow the money to be used for design and pre-construction expenses for the building. Several people involved in the effort said the money sends a signal that Congress, for now, is willing to support the project.

The funding, which Mikulski and others described as a down payment, represents a fraction of the project's eventual cost, which could exceed $1 billion.

Despite uncertainty over the final vote, the agreement represents progress for a Congress that has lurched from one fiscal crisis to another during much of Obama's presidency. It is the first major funding bill negotiated by Ryan, who took over for John Boehner in October. It comes at a time when Republicans are eager to show voters in next year's presidential election that the GOP is capable of governing.

Federal employees would receive a small salary bump under the bill because lawmakers did not block Obama's proposed 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment. Those who live in the Washington-Baltimore region would receive an additional locality pay increase of 0.46 percent.

Maryland is home to more than 300,000 federal government workers and 20 federal agencies.

The Social Security Administration would receive $150 million for renovations to its 1950s-era Altmeyer Building in Baltimore County.

The 10-story building requires "major upgrades" to address health and safety concerns, aides to Mikulski said. The renovation would also allow an additional 350 staff to work from the building.

The Social Security Administration employs more than 11,000 people in Maryland.

Mikulski has served on the Appropriations Committee since she joined the Senate in 1987 — a rare assignment for a freshman lawmaker. During her tenure she has exerted considerable influence on agencies in the state, including the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and its Hubble Space Telescope, the National Institutes of Health and the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay.

Coast Guard Capt. George A. Lesher, the commanding officer at the yard, recalled that Mikulski and other members of Maryland's congressional delegation saved the facility from closing in the 1980s. Since then, Lesher said, Mikulski has advocated for more work and equipment at the facility.

Today, about 600 people work at the yard, maintaining and repairing the Coast Guard's vast fleet of buoy tenders and icebreakers.

"Senator Mikulski and others had the foresight to realize where we would be today," Lesher said.

Mikulski hasn't achieved all of the goals she had set out to accomplish. On the night she was named to chair the Appropriations Committee, she said her top mission would be to bring back regular order — the process of moving individual spending bills through committees instead of negotiating a giant omnibus behind closed doors.

Regular order is favored by many lawmakers and observers because it gives the rank-and-file more freedom to legislate. But it also opens their legislation up to political floor fights that can force votes on controversial amendments to be used as weapons at election time.

It was the threat of showdowns on the floor — an issue beyond Mikulski's reach — that ultimately blocked regular order for taking hold.

"The bottom line is the Senate floor has become unmanageable and under those kinds of circumstances it's very difficult for any leader to return to regular order," said Peter C. Hanson, an aide to former Sen. Tom Daschle.

"My sense is that Senator Mikulski has been extremely effective and she's respected on Capitol Hill," said Hanson, now a political science professor at the University of Denver. "But to some extent she is subject to the same polarized politics that everyone else is today."

The spending bill, if approved, would keep the lights on through the end of September — about a month before next year's presidential election. Lawmakers will get another chance to draft appropriations bills at that time, but with the election so close, it's possible Congress would approve only stopgap spending until after the next president is inaugurated in 2017.

Several advocacy groups in the state cheered the agreement.

"This is a big deal for the Chesapeake," said Joel Dunn, president of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

The proposal includes nearly $11 million for regional conservation programs — almost double the amount set aside last year.

"This federal funding is catalytic in that it will stimulate [others] to chip in and protect the critical lands across the bay," he said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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Federal spending for Maryland

The $1.1 trillion spending bill heading toward final votes in Congress this includes several provisions aimed at Maryland:

•$390 million for a new FBI headquarters that could be located in Prince George's County.

•$2 billion in new funding for the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health.

•1.46 percent pay raise for civilian federal employees.

•$150 million for renovations at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn.

•$34.5 million to widen entry points at Fort Meade.

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