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Long-overdue budget wins House approval

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 14, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The House overwhelmingly approved a vast $397.4-billion spending bill Thursday, a package pouring taxpayers' money into everything from poor school districts to a probe of the shuttle Columbia disaster to the National Cowgirl Museum in Texas.

The final 338-83 roll call underlined the popularity of the governmentwide measure, which bore something for almost every member of Congress.

Members of both parties seemed relieved to be finished with the long-overdue measure, which would finance every agency but the Pentagon for the last two-thirds of the federal budget year.

The vote moved Congress one step away from ending a budget stalemate that began last year, when President Bush demanded lower spending than many in Congress wanted.

Senate passage was expected by Friday.

The bill and supporting documents stacked more than 13 inches high, weighed 32 pounds and exceeded 3,000 pages, and opponents used it as a prop to argue that few lawmakers knew exactly what was in it.

In the last frantic days of House-Senate bargaining, members of Congress and the Bush administration won funds that had not been included earlier.

Lawmakers threw in $3.1-billion to help farmers and ranchers, including those hurt by drought and floods; $1.5-billion to help states revamp their election systems; and $54-billion over 10 years to increase Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals.

The White House won $10-billion for added defense spending that President Bush originally requested a year ago.

"This is now a must-pass bill," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla. "This is a national defense bill, it provides for the needs of our country and it employs some fiscal restraint."

The measure was opposed by an odd coalition: Some Democrats complaining it shortchanged education, domestic security and park lands, and conservative Republicans angry that it spent too much.

"Rather than duct tape and plastic sheeting, I think our firemen would rather have more aid," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

It also contained many billions of dollars Bush had not initially sought for farm aid, highway construction, doctors and hospitals.

Squirreled away inside were thousands of home-district projects for senators and representatives of both parties costing several billion dollars and adding to the bill's virtually unstoppable momentum.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, took credit for winning $90,000 to create a bilingual audio tour for the cowgirl museum in Fort Worth, where she was once mayor. There was $50,000 more for research on shiitake mushrooms at the South Central Family Farm Research Center in Booneville, Ark.

One section alone divided $315-million for wastewater grants among 484 projects. The listing ran from $1.6-million for a water main in Palmer, Alaska, to $572-million for water system improvements in Beach Bottom, W.Va. Those two states are represented by the top members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

In the Senate, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was threatening to slow passage. He was unhappy that a program paying farmers to conserve land and water, enacted only last year, was being tapped to pay for the $3.1-billion farm aid package.

The measure would provide $53.1-billion for the Education Department, $3.1-billion more than Bush requested. Democrats cited that as a victory.

It would also roll back a provision enacted last year giving vaccine manufacturers protection against lawsuits from people claiming that their products have caused autism in some children.

The measure also included:

-- $15.4-billion for NASA, $500-million over last year. It included $50-million to let the space agency investigate the Feb. 1 destruction of the Columbia, which killed seven astronauts.

-- Nearly $11.8-billion for school districts serving large numbers of low-income students, $1.4-billion more than last year.

Also . . .

TAX CUTS: New Treasury Secretary John Snow said Thursday that President Bush's proposal for $1.3-trillion worth of tax cuts would give the economy a quick boost and provide long-term benefits that would improve American living standards.

Snow used his first speech since taking office a week ago to defend Bush's economic program against Democrats' arguments that it is tilted toward the wealthy, offers too little in short-term economic stimulus and costs too much. The spending plan projects record budget deficits this year and next.

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