Multi-billion spending bill receives House OK in vote that split parties

Legislation is heavy with favorite projects of White House, lawmakers

December 09, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives passed a huge spending bill yesterday that includes White House policies inserted over House and Senate objections, as well as millions of dollars for lawmakers' pet projects back home.

But the Senate is unlikely to take up the legislation until late next month, effectively freezing government spending for now.

The so-called "omnibus" bill has $328 billion for government programs ranging from education to veterans' hospitals to agriculture.

It also has $45 billion in gasoline-tax money for transportation and aviation projects. And it permits the expenditure of $447 billion for mandatory "entitlement" programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

"These are real programs that will help real people," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

The debate was drawn along partisan lines, with Democrats denouncing special-interest spending and Bush's policies to permit greater concentration of media ownership, restrict overtime pay and scrap 90-day records of gun sales.

Republicans congratulated themselves for keeping the growth of overall spending under 3 percent and praised the bill's increases in such areas as special education and veterans' care.

The 242-176 vote split Democrats and Republicans, with 58 Democrats voting for it and 38 Republicans voting against.

Democrats and some Republicans are especially annoyed that Republican congressional leaders yielded to the White House and accepted a compromise permitting greater concentration of media ownership despite House and Senate votes against it.

The final legislation didn't include Senate language that would have stopped the administration from enforcing new limits on white-collar overtime.

The final version also didn't include House and Senate provisions that would have relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, because the White House objected.

"This bill is a spectacular example of legislation and political pressure run amok," said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

The committee's chairman, C.W. Bill Young, conceded that policy controversies are inevitable in spending legislation that must pass Congress to keep the government operating. "They're about the only bills around here that have to pass," the Florida Republican said. "That's why they attract some riders that sometimes give us more problems in negotiations than the [spending] bills themselves."

Many conservative Republicans lined up against the bill, ridiculing the local spending provisions inserted by appropriators, a trend that has increased sharply in the past eight years.

The bill included $50 million for an indoor rain-forest project in Iowa, a proposal championed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from that state. The money would help pay for a $220 million, 4.5-acre domed forest and 1 million-gallon aquarium in Coralville, Iowa.

The bill includes $3 million for golf education for young people, $200,000 to help make a film about Kalahari Desert bushmen, millions for local hospitals and hundreds of thousands of dollars to scores of museums across the country.

"Most of these earmarks mostly benefit [single] members, one project," said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who voted against the bill. "We as Republicans have decried this practice for years, and now we seem to have embraced it. If we want fiscal restraint, then we have to do something about this kind of spending."

Young said appropriators received $50 billion in targeted spending requests from members of Congress and turned down most of them. DeLay defended the local provisions, saying members of Congress are well-equipped to understand the needs of their states and congressional districts.

"You don't have to decide whether some bureaucrat thinks it's important or not," he said. "I'm not ashamed of the earmarks in this bill."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who sent the Senate home last month until Jan. 20, had hoped to pass the bill by unanimous agreement, thus avoiding a formal roll call. But Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said he would object and force a debate.

Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Frist, said yesterday that he would make a final decision tomorrow on whether to reconvene the Senate to vote on the bill.

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