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House passes $516 billion spending bill

The House Monday approved a $516 billion measure funding 14 Cabinet agencies and funding for troops in Afghanistan, setting the stage for a year-end budget deal with the White House.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The House Monday approved a $516 billion measure funding 14 Cabinet agencies and funding for troops in Afghanistan, setting the stage for a year-end budget deal with the White House.

President Bush has signaled he'll ultimately sign the measure -- assuming up to $40 billion more is provided by the Senate for the Iraq war -- despite opposition from GOP conservatives.

In an unusual two-step, lawmakers first voted 253-154 to approve the omnibus spending bill; they then voted 206-201 to add $31 billion for troops in Afghanistan to the measure. The combined $516 billion spending package is set for Senate debate on Tuesday.

The year-end measure mostly sticks within Bush's budget, though it shifts billions of dollars into politically sensitive programs he sought to cut. Bush signaled he would sign the measure, awarding a 4 percent increase, on average, to domestic programs.

Bush's approval depends on Senate Republicans succeeding, later this week, in adding up to $40 billion for U.S. troops in Iraq.

"We're making some pretty good progress toward coming up with a fiscally sound budget, one that meets priorities, helps on some emergencies and enables us to say that we've been fiscally sound with the people's money," Bush said Monday.

The 1,482-page bill has been shorn of Democratic policy riders that drew White House veto threats, such as an attempt to ease or end restrictions on aid to overseas family planning groups that provide abortions.

Republicans generally opposed the omnibus bill measure since it fails to include funding for military operations in Iraq and provides $13 billion above Bush's "top line" request for the one-third of the budget passed each year by Congress.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill after substituting $70 billion in funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. The complicated plan calls for the House to have a vote limited to the war funding. That vote, if successful, would clear the combined bill for Bush's approval and allow lawmakers to go home for Christmas.

Defeat for Democrats
The result would be a twin defeat for Democrats, who had vowed not to allow additional Iraq war funding without conditions and had spent months on legislation to add $27 billion to domestic programs, an almost 7 percent increase.

Bush sought a much smaller increase, less than 1 percent, for domestic programs other than military base construction; the Democratic bill provides domestic increases averaging about 4 percent, once "emergency" funding above Bush's budget is included.

Democrats succeeded in reversing cuts sought by Bush to heating subsidies, local law enforcement, Amtrak and housing as well as Bush's plan to eliminate the $654 million budget for grants to community action agencies that help the poor.

To find the money, lawmakers shifted $6 billion from Bush's plans for defense, foreign aid and military base construction accounts. Veterans would get $3.7 billion more than Bush requested, supplied on an "emergency" basis above Bush's budget cap.

Democrats were able to put their imprint on the bill, restoring Bush-sought cuts to state and local law enforcement grants, aid to community action groups and airport modernization grants.

Democrats also added funding for food programs, subsidies to community development banks and Homeland Security Department grants to first responders.

Democrats also touted increases for Social Security administrative costs aimed at reducing backlogs for disability claims. They added $544 million above Bush's budget to battle AIDS overseas, and awarded a 16 percent boost for the National Endowment of the Arts, a frequent target of GOP conservatives. The chronically underfunded Consumer Product Safety Commission would get a 28 percent hike in its budget.

Conservative Republicans opposed the measure, and House GOP leaders issued a carefully worded statement announcing they would oppose the bill on Monday -- but leaving open the option to support it when it comes back for a final vote, as early as Wednesday.

Hometown pet projects
The measure caps months of battling with Bush over the one-sixth of the budget passed each year by Congress for domestic programs such as education, food aid and low-income housing. Bush steadfastly refused to negotiate with Congress over a cap of $933 billion for all such discretionary appropriations, which include the $459 billion defense budget bill enacted last month. Democrats sought $23 billion above Bush's cap.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group that opposed so-called pork barrel projects, counted 8,983 such "earmarks" worth $7.4 billion. These hometown pet projects include economic development grants, aid to local transit and police departments, and clean water projects, among many others.