The Senate overcame Democratic delaying tactics Thursday and sent President Bush an overdue $373 billion bill financing a vast swath of government and bearing a bushel of victories for the White House.
Senators approved the measure 65-28 a month after House passage. The bill finances agriculture, veterans and most other domestic programs for the budget year that began Oct. 1 — nearly four months ago.
The mammoth measure also protects Bush administration policies on overtime pay, media ownership and food labeling. Angry over those issues, Democrats had succeeded on Tuesday in blocking a vote on final passage.
But in Thursday’s showdown, the chamber voted 61-32 to end Democratic delays that had slowed the measure since last month, one more than the 60 votes needed. With the White House and GOP leaders adamant about not changing the measure, enough Democrats succumbed to its tons of home-state projects and spending boosts for popular programs.
“It is time to move on,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “The country demands that we complete action on this bill.”
Overtime, media and mad cows
The bill would let the administration proceed with new rules that would let companies pay overtime to fewer white collar workers, and allow media conglomerates to own more television stations.
It would also postpone for two years a requirement that meat and many other foods sold in stores have labels identifying the country they come from. With last month’s discovery that a Washington state cow had mad cow disease, many Democrats hoped they had gained leverage that would let them remove the labeling delay, but the White House and House GOP leaders refused to budge.
“Take it or leave it,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., describing what he said was the GOP’s attitude on the bill. “This is one senator who’s going to leave it because of what it will do to working families and women and veterans of this country.”
Had Democrats succeeded in blocking the measure, Republican leaders were threatening to replace it with a bare-bones bill that would have financed most of government at last year’s levels — about $6 billion less than the stalled legislation.
That would have meant dramatically less money for fighting AIDS overseas, the FBI and other anti-terrorism efforts, and many other programs. It was unclear whether GOP leaders would have ever gained sufficient votes to push such a bill through Congress.
Policy triumphs for Bush in the bill include eased requirements for federal gun records, the nation’s first federally financed school vouchers, and language letting him contract out more government work to contractors.
The bill also has money for Bush priorities including fighting AIDS in Africa, aid for countries instituting democratic reforms, the AmeriCorps national service program and funds for disabled students.
It will also let Bush claim that he held expenditures in the 13 spending bills to just a 3 percent increase this year — though billions in new expenses for war or other efforts could come in the next few months.
With the presidential and congressional elections looming in November, opponents seemed eager to snatch victory from defeat by keeping the issues alive into the campaigns.
“We’re not giving up,” said Bill Samuel, legislative director of the labor organization AFL-CIO. “We’ll continue our efforts on the next bill.”
Daschle said Democrats would use special Senate procedures to try forcing a vote on a resolution rejecting the overtime regulations when they take effect.
The package wraps seven spending bills into one, covering 11 Cabinet departments and scores of other agencies, plus foreign aid and the District of Columbia government. Six other spending measures — covering the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security and several other agencies — have been enacted.
Internal GOP disagreements over spending and policy issues prevented Congress from finishing the bill on time last year. Republicans had vowed to finish the measure on time to underscore their ability to run the government, but their failure to do so probably won’t register on a public more concerned about the economy, war and terrorism.
Lawmakers like the bill’s increases for veterans’ health care, schools, highway projects, farm conservation efforts, improved local election systems, and biomedical research.
The measure also has 7,932 so-called earmarks — for local items like museum upgrades and agricultural research — costing $10.7 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that pushes for lower spending.