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GOP still trying to finish budget

©Associated Press
February 9, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Republicans trying to reach final agreement on a compromise $390-billion package financing most federal agencies this year hope to push it through Congress this week.

Facing a veto threat from President Bush if the bill's price tag moves much above $390-billion, Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress were trying to pare the cost of items added by the Senate last month.

Unresolved questions remained over providing $3.1-billion in assistance for farmers and other funds to boost Medicare reimbursements for some hospitals and doctors. It was possible that both provisions could be omitted from the bill.

An extra $5-billion for education inserted by the Senate -- bringing the Education Department's budget to roughly $58-billion -- seemed likely to at least be cut in half, aides said. Money senators added for Amtrak and battling AIDS and famine in Africa was also facing reductions.

The measure is an amalgam of 11 spending bills for the federal budget year that started Oct. 1. The bills stalled last year after House GOP leaders decided to avert a campaign-season clash with Bush, who was insisting on lower spending than many lawmakers wanted.

Top Republicans are eager to finish the legislation so they can move on to this year's priorities, which include Bush's plan for new tax cuts and an effort to create new prescription drug benefits under Medicare.

Democrats, who wanted billions more than the final package is likely to contain, were playing a minor role in shaping it.

Cuts in spending for land conservation and federal cultural programs were planned. In addition, Republicans were discussing including language making it harder for opponents to block logging in Alaska's 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, or to hinder a proposed new energy pipeline in that state.

Republicans were hoping to limit cuts in most of the bill's programs to just below 1 percent. The Senate version of the bill included 2.9 percent across-the-board cuts to make room for the added funds for education and other programs.

Lawmakers were also competing for "earmarks" financing hometown projects. Billions of dollars for such items were expected to be in the bill's final version.

The only two spending bills enacted so far for this year cover defense spending.

Once the package passes, the White House is expected to propose a new bill providing billions more this year for counterterrorism, a war with Iraq, if there is one, and other programs.

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