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Spending Bill Passed in Senate Not 'Pretty'

Democrats go further, calling the $390-billion plan to fund the federal government a 'major mistake.' Difficult negotiations are ahead.

January 24, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Nearly four months late, the Senate on Thursday approved a $390-billion bill to fund the federal government's domestic agencies and foreign aid into next fall.

Passage of the legislation, on a 69-29 vote, was a notable victory for the Senate's new Republican leadership and an important step toward wrapping up leftover business from the 107th Congress.

The legislation, stitched together from the remains of 11 dead spending bills written last year when Democrats controlled the Senate, now heads into difficult negotiations. Details in the bill, crammed into more than 1,000 pages of text, must be reconciled with the sometimes-conflicting priorities of the GOP-led House and the Bush administration.

Taken together with two military spending laws enacted last year, the Senate-approved bill would chart the government on a course to increase spending overall by 2.4% for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, compared with fiscal year 2002. Most of that increase would go toward defense spending to help fund a major military buildup, operations in and around Afghanistan and preparations for possible war in Iraq.

Funding for education, homeland security and overhaul of election systems would also rise. But other programs, on the whole, would be slightly pared back.

The bill funds a host of non-defense programs, spanning Cabinet departments from Agriculture to Homeland Security to Veterans Affairs. It may yet change in talks among congressional leaders and the White House. A final compromise is not expected until the first week of February, at the earliest.

In moving the bill toward final approval, Republican lawmakers find themselves in a vise: Bush has ordered them to limit fiscal 2003 spending, while Democrats and many of their own constituents have challenged them to raise it.

As a result, Senate Republicans performed budgetary gymnastics this week in an effort to depict themselves as simultaneously generous and tight-fisted with the government's money.

For instance, they agreed to a Democratic proposal to raise funds for special education by $1.5 billion -- on top of $8.5 billion already in the bill -- but only after forcing the additional money to be counted as an expense for the next fiscal year.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told reporters that the bill was "not perfect, and not especially pretty." But he claimed a solid victory nonetheless, having mobilized his party to defeat many Democratic attempts to add expenditures for homeland security and other programs.

Republicans claimed that dozens of proposed Democratic amendments would have added hundreds of billions of dollars to projected budget shortfalls in the coming decade. "Democrats have proven the case here that they're not that concerned about deficits," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Democrats countered that Republicans were shortchanging popular and essential programs.

In the end, Senate Democrats split over the bill. Barbara Boxer of California confessed a few hours before the final roll call that she was torn between casting a protest vote against a Republican budget and voting to keep federal agencies moving forward.

"If we don't fund the government, it shuts down," Boxer said. Ultimately, she was one of 27 Democrats -- of the Senate's 48 -- who voted no. Independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont also was opposed.

Dianne Feinstein of California, another opponent, called the spending bill "one of the worst pieces of legislation" to pass the Senate during her decade in the chamber.

"This bill is a major mistake and represents a shortsighted approach to solving our nation's problems," she said, accusing the Bush team of starving domestic programs to fund its proposed $674-billion tax cut.

But 19 Democrats voted for the bill, many lured by projects included for their home-state or regional interests.

Fifty of the Senate's 51 Republicans voted for the legislation, including nine newcomers who were voting for the first time on a major spending bill. "We're cleaning up last year's mess," said one of the rookies, Norm Coleman of Minnesota. "Folks got the message in November: Get it done."

The lone Republican dissenter was Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois.

Funding for the government was delayed last year when the two parties came to a stalemate over spending legislation. Encouraged by the White House, Republicans held out for reduced spending levels and were able to achieve that goal when they took back the Senate in the November elections. But the delay has had consequences.

For one, Bush will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday with much of the government effectively on autopilot, operating under a stopgap resolution that funds everything except the Pentagon at levels essentially frozen from fiscal 2002.

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