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Congress approves $388B spending bill

Republicans whisked a $388 billion spending bill through Congress on Saturday, a mammoth measure that underscores the dominance of deficit politics by curbing dollars for everything from education to environmental cleanups.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Republicans whisked a $388 billion spending bill through Congress on Saturday, a mammoth measure that underscores the dominance of deficit politics by curbing dollars for everything from education to environmental cleanups.

The House approved the measure by a bipartisan 344-51 margin, while Senate passage was by 65-30.

Senate approval took longer because of disputes over provisions dealing with abortions and members of Congress’ access to income tax returns. Leaders agreed to not send the spending package to President Bush for his signature until the tax returns issue is resolved in a separate bill, expected to be passed by the House on Wednesday.

From its tight domestic spending to the Democratic-backed provisions on overtime and other issues that were dropped, the bill is a monument to the GOP’s raw power controlling the White House and Congress. An imposing monument, too: The bill and explanatory report, completed near midnight Friday, were about 14 inches tall, leaving many lawmakers baffled about its precise contents.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we held the line and made Congress make choices and set priorities, because it follows our philosophy,” Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said in House debate.

Bush initiatives cut
Even President Bush’s initiatives were not immune to cuts as the bill’s GOP chief authors heeded his demands to control spending. His request for development of new nuclear weapons was rejected; his budget for the AmeriCorps volunteer program was sliced by 12 percent; and the $2.5 billion he wanted to aid countries adopting democratic practices was slashed by $1 billion.

Passage crowned the lame-duck session of Congress, which began Tuesday. Lawmakers began leaving town for the year Saturday night, though it was unclear whether efforts to pass a bill reorganizing U.S. intelligence agencies or other business might bring them back sooner.

Also enacted last week was an $800 billion increase in the government’s borrowing limit. The measure was yet another testament to record annual deficits, which reached $413 billion last year and are expected to climb indefinitely.

While the spending bill was one of the most austere in years, it had something for virtually every lawmaker, including mountains of home-district projects. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a bipartisan group favoring less federal spending, said it found 11,772 projects worth $15.8 billion.

Projects included:

  • $335,000 to protect sunflowers in North Dakota from blackbird damage.
  • $60 million for a new courthouse in Las Cruces, N.M.
  • $225,000 to study catfish genomes at Alabama’s Auburn University.
  • A potential boon for Bush himself, $2 million for the government to try buying back the former presidential yacht Sequoia. The boat was sold three decades ago, and its current owners say the yacht is assessed at $9.8 million and are distressed by the provision.

Bipartisan support
Despite complaints the bill was too stingy, most Democrats supported it. They helped write it and included many projects for themselves. They knew the alternative — holding spending to last year’s levels — would be $4 billion tighter.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., said the bill “falls so far from meeting our investment obligations for the future that it could only be brought to the floor by the majority party after the election.”

The measure was a compendium of nine bills that Republicans found too contentious to complete before the Nov. 2 elections. The legislation covers almost every domestic agency and department, plus foreign aid.

The FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission and NASA got healthy increases. But education grew by less than 2 percent. The Environmental Protection Agency grew by 3.5 percent.

Overall, the nine bills the measure combined were just 2 percent larger than last year’s versions. When foreign aid and defense spending are omitted, the remaining domestic programs grew by around 1 percent.

Spending constraints
To stay within the spending constraints Bush demanded, all programs in the bill eventually will be cut by at least 0.8 percent.

One of the last measures to pass Congress this year, the spending bill bore fruit for many industries while leaving other interests short.

There will be visas for 20,000 more skilled foreign workers for high technology businesses. Satellite television companies will be able to feed digital network programming to rural viewers.

Two labor-led efforts failed to make the cut. One would have blocked Bush administration rules on overtime pay. The second would have prevented the Internal Revenue Service from using private debt collectors to collect overdue taxes.

Efforts to extend some federal milk subsidies and repeal country-of-origin labels for many foods also failed. But included were new rules governing the recreational use of federal lands and federal small business programs.

A bridge near the Hoover Dam between Arizona and Nevada was named for Pat Tillman, the professional football player killed while serving in the Army in Afghanistan.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., won a provision naming the oak tree as the national tree.

Congress is supposed to complete 13 spending bills financing federal agencies by the Oct. 1 start of each budget year. Four of those bills financing the military, homeland security and the District of Columbia were enacted earlier this year.

To give White House officials time to review the bill, Congress approved a measure temporarily financing covered agencies through Dec. 3.

The last short-term spending measure was expiring at midnight Saturday. White House aides said that to avoid a weekend disruption in government services, the just-passed temporary measure was being flown overnight to Bush in Chile so he could quickly sign it.

Abortion fight
Resolving one last-minute fight, Senate GOP leaders agreed to give abortion-rights supporters a chance by spring to repeal language making it easier for health-care providers to decline to provide abortions or offer counseling and referrals.

They also agreed to have the House vote Wednesday to kill a provision letting top members of Congress’ Appropriations committees send people to examine income tax returns, without any penalties should they publicly disclose them. The Senate approved legislation repealing that section Saturday evening.

Leaders agreed not to send the overall spending bill to Bush until the measure repealing the income-tax provision was approved.