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Senate OKs Spending Bill Despite Veto Threat

Bush demands that add-ons to the measure, which is mostly war funding, be scaled back.

May 05, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defying the most serious veto threat since George W. Bush became president, the Senate passed an emergency spending bill Thursday that includes $14 billion more than the White House wanted.

The vast majority of the $109-billion total is designated for military operations in Iraq and hurricane relief on the Gulf Coast -- $66 billion for the war and $29 billion for post-Katrina relief and repairs. The rest of the money, added incrementally as the Senate debated the bill over the last two weeks, is intended for programs that supporters say are crucial and critics deride as "pork."

Senators approved their bill by a strong majority, 77 to 21. The opposition came entirely from Republicans who risked being labeled as voting against the troops to take a stand against what they considered excessive spending.

The Senate action set up a confrontation with the House, which in March passed a bill that came in below the $94.5-billion limit set by Bush.

"This emergency spending should have been focused on supporting our brave troops and the urgent needs of those affected by Hurricane Katrina," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "Instead, every Democrat and many Republicans proved they care more about pet projects than the future of our children and grandchildren."

But supporters said the projects in the bill -- including $37 million to repair the levee system along the Sacramento River -- were pressing enough to warrant inclusion.

"If we find provisions that shouldn't be in the bill, we'll consider taking them out," Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said after the vote. "[But] this is the will of the Senate, and we'll defend it."

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed to cut the Senate version down when members of the two chambers negotiate a joint bill.

"The House will not take up an emergency supplemental spending bill for Katrina and the war in Iraq that spends one dollar more than what the president asked for. Period," Boehner said.

The White House said Bush's veto threat still stood, and 35 senators -- one more than needed to block an effort to override a veto -- sent a letter to the White House vowing to support the president.

"The president has made it very clear he would veto legislation that goes above and beyond what he called for," spokesman Scott McClellan said.

The additional funds bring the total costs of military operations to $439 billion, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported -- including $320 billion for the war in Iraq, $89 billion for Afghanistan and $26 billion for enhanced security in the United States.

Although the supplemental spending bill was drawn up primarily to pay for ongoing military operations, senators spent almost no time debating the war. Instead, the legislation became a vehicle for an intense, if largely symbolic, fight between Republicans exercising their constitutional power of the purse and Republicans trying to curb "pork-barrel" spending.

Senate Republican leaders asked the president to issue the veto threat when debate began, saying it was needed to rein in members who might see the must-pass bill to supply soldiers in the field as a convenient vehicle for pet projects.

But in private, some senators and staff said the president's veto threat actually emboldened senators to add spending, because they could rely on the threat to provide cover for removing those provisions before sending the bill to the president.

If the extras don't come out, "I think it will be vetoed," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who led the opposition. "It's going to come back and it's going to be under the number and it's going to go to the president a second time."

Coburn and other opponents managed to remove a few provisions, including $15 million for seafood promotion strategies and $1 million for a study of Hawaiian dams and reservoirs. But most of their efforts to trim the bill failed.

Among the programs remaining in the Senate version are:

* $4 billion in farm disaster aid.

* $1.9 billion for U.S. border security.

* $1.1 billion in aid to the Gulf Coast seafood industry.

* $700 million to relocate a rail line along the Gulf Coast.

* $648 million for port security.

* $500 million to a Northrop Grumman shipyard in Mississippi to compensate for hurricane losses uncovered by insurance.

In addition, the bill contains $37 million to shore up levees and riverbanks in and around Sacramento, to prevent flooding from the Sacramento and American rivers.

"These levees could go at any time," warned Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

"If you know they could go and you don't try to do something about it, you could be responsible for the deaths and property loss of a large number of people."

Feinstein expressed confidence that the levee funds would survive negotiations with the House to trim the bill.

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