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THE NATION

Negotiators Agree to Anti-Terrorism Bill Funding

Legislation: $28.9-billion measure is a concession to Bush, who had vowed to veto costlier versions. Congress' OK is expected early next week.

July 19, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After months of bickering with the Bush administration over the price tag, House and Senate negotiators finally reached agreement Thursday on a $28.9-billion emergency spending bill to help pay for military operations in Afghanistan and other anti-terrorism initiatives.

The bill is expected to clear Congress and be sent to President Bush for his signature early next week, averting dire predictions of funding shortfalls at the Defense Department and the Transportation Security Administration.

The compromise measure represents a big concession to the White House, which had threatened to veto earlier versions of the bill that would have cost more.

The long and often bitter effort to keep a check on spending pitted Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. not just against Democrats but also against powerful members of Bush's own party.

The retreat by lawmakers on the bill's cost may strengthen the administration's hand as Congress begins earnest work on the year's 13 regular appropriation bills, which have shown signs of spiraling beyond Bush's spending guidelines. Indeed, conservatives this week tied up House proceedings for two days to protest spending bills that they said would bust the budget.

The jockeying highlights the cross-pressures on Bush as he faces growing federal budget deficits. On one side, conservatives who are crucial to Bush's political base argue that fiscal restraint remains their party's stock in trade. But other Republicans are pushing the bounds of Bush's budget request to improve GOP election prospects. In their view, budget discipline has been loosened by the economic downturn and the demands of national security.

The emergency spending bill was this year's first test of Bush's ability to balance those conflicting forces. The compromise, drafted to resolve differences between House and Senate versions, includes $14.4 billion for the Pentagon, $6.7 billion for homeland security and $5.5 billion to help New York recover from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It also includes funding for an array of other needs, including $100 million to help respond to recent floods and forest fires. The bill funnels $200 million in aid to Israel and $50 million for humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

To help beef up federal oversight of business at a scandal-ridden time, the bill includes $31 million for the Securities and Exchange Commission. To help shore up the nation's ailing passenger railway, the bill appropriates $205 million for Amtrak. And $400 million is provided to help states overhaul their voting systems.

The bill enjoyed broad bipartisan support, but its progress through Congress proved remarkably contentious. Bush's initial request was for $27.1 billion for defense and homeland security expenses, costs stemming from the nation's response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The House passed a $28.8-billion version; although that exceeded Bush's request, the administration endorsed it. But the administration protested when the Senate version ran the bill up to $31.4 billion.

Members of the powerful House and Senate Appropriations Committee labored for weeks to resolve their differences and last week announced agreement on a $30.4-billion compromise. But Daniels pronounced that unacceptable and threatened a presidential veto of any bill over $28.8 billion.

That sent appropriators of both parties into an unusually personal, bitter rage against Daniels. They were particularly infuriated that the administration was picking a fight over what they saw as a relatively small amount of money, especially when the White House put up almost no fight against a farm aid bill that grew to $170 billion earlier this year.

The delay in approving supplemental funds was starting to cause problems. The Pentagon warned it was close to running out of money for crucial functions. The Transportation Security Administration said the delay jeopardized efforts to beef up passenger and baggage screening at airports.

Against that backdrop, congressional negotiators retreated and agreed to a $28.9-billion compromise. Daniels welcomed the change of heart and said the episode should teach Congress to take Bush seriously when he draws a line on future spending bills.

''This president is very plain-spoken,'' said Daniels. ''When he says a limit is a limit, he doesn't mean here's my opening bid.''

Still, some conservatives are worried about whether Bush will have the political courage to veto popular spending bills if they make it to his desk in amounts exceeding his requests.

Fiscal conservatives are especially concerned that spending will spin out of control because partisan divisions have kept Congress, for only the second time in a generation, from passing a budget imposing an overall cap on spending.

That's why conservative House Republicans this week protested an Interior Department bill that totaled $19.8 billion, which exceeded Bush's request by $777 million. They offered a series of amendments to trim the cost of the bill.

But the episode underscored how hard it is to curb spending: All their amendments were overwhelmingly rejected. The bill passed and is pending in the Senate.

''Fiscally responsible lawmakers are becoming an endangered species,'' said Aileen Roder, an analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. ''Only a presidential veto can stop these big spenders.''

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