Congress sends $328.5 billion spending bill to Bush

Most lawmakers approved package on threat of veto

January 23, 2004|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Congress sent to President Bush yesterday a $328.5 billion spending bill that clears the way for new rules dealing with gun purchases, media ownership and overtime pay.

The measure is packed with pet projects, including $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Iowa and $200,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, designed to curry favor with voters back home.

The measure, which cleared the House last month, will fund a wide range of Cabinet departments and government agencies for the 2004 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Its approval comes as Congress readies for a bruising election-year budget battle over Bush's 2005 spending plan, which will be unveiled Feb. 2.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, called the measure a "Frankenstein of a bill." And during the debate Wednesday, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a critic of what he estimated is $11 billion in "pork-barrel" spending in the measure, urged: "Veto this bill, Mr. President."

But Bush said he would sign the bill, which includes funding for some of his initiatives, including $2.4 billion for combating AIDS worldwide and a $423 million boost in the FBI's efforts against terrorism. It also allows the administration to move ahead with controversial rules that would limit overtime pay, let big media companies buy more television stations and delay implementation of country-of-origin food labeling.

In a statement, Bush said he was pleased that the bill "stays within the spending limits I proposed, which is necessary as we work to cut the deficit in half over the next five years."

But Jill Lancelot, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based budget watchdog group, decried legislators' lack of fiscal discipline. "Lawmakers see this as the kickoff for the 2004 re-election campaigns," she said. "They can now go back home with their pockets full of goodies for their constituents, leaving a huge crater of a budget deficit behind in Washington."

The measure includes a provision, supported by the National Rifle Association, that would require the destruction of records on background checks for gun purchases within 24 hours if law enforcement officials find no red flags; currently, records can be saved for 90 days.

Democrats objected to Republican leaders stripping a provision that would have blocked the Labor Department from implementing a new overtime rule, which critics say will deny overtime pay to up to 8 million workers. Both houses of Congress voted last year to block the rule, but Bush threatened to make the spending measure his first veto if it tied his hands.

A veto threat also led GOP leaders to allow media companies to become larger than many lawmakers wanted. House and Senate majorities had voted to oppose a Federal Communications Commission decision permitting a media company to own TV stations reaching 45 percent of U.S. viewers, up from 35 percent. But GOP leaders, fearing a veto, raised the limit to 39 percent.

Some lawmakers - Republicans as well as Democrats - also objected to the two-year delay in the requirement for country-of-origin labels on meat, an issue that gained prominence after last month's discovery of a case of mad cow disease in Washington state.

"We can drive a vehicle on the surface of Mars, and we cannot put labels on meat?" said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat.

Hundreds of home-state projects packed into the bill - and the politically riskier alternative of failing to pass a spending bill and leaving funding for many programs at last year's lower levels - made the package too difficult for most lawmakers to resist in an election year.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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