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Congress Earmarks $660 Million for Wildfire Damage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first bills are arriving for the massive wildfire that ravaged Los Alamos National Laboratory and the surrounding community in New Mexico last month, and the cost to taxpayers already is steep: More than $660 million to repair damage and settle claims in the aftermath of a government-started blaze that spun out of control.

That total was included in an $11.2-billion spending accord reached this week by key lawmakers that the House approved Thursday, 306 to 110. The Senate is expected to follow suit today. The package also includes money for the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and a major anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency initiative in Colombia.

The lion’s share of the Los Alamos fire-recovery money, $500 million, would help compensate hundreds of New Mexican families who lost their homes and others who suffered damage to businesses or other property in the Cerro Grande blaze. The fire began May 4 as a controlled burn on federal land, but winds turned it into one of the worst disasters, man-made or natural, in state history. It torched 48,000 acres.

The package earmarks an additional $138 million to help the nuclear weapon laboratory begin repairing damage to its facilities. The fire leveled about 40 trailers, sheds, warehouses and other nonpermanent buildings at the lab and caused smoke and heat damage to lasers and other sensitive equipment.

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Lawmakers indicated that the sums they plan to set aside may be only a start. Officials previously had estimated that damage at the lab alone may exceed $300 million. And the federal government may be on the hook for even more in private claim settlements.

Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a key player on budget and spending issues, and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said in a joint statement that the agreement demonstrates recognition that the federal government owes New Mexico a fair deal in the wake of a fire that a federal agency caused.

“Congress is ready to provide this and more . . . if it is needed,” Domenici said.

The overall midyear spending package for fiscal 2000 was attached to an otherwise routine $8.8-billion bill to fund military construction in the next fiscal year. For several months, the midyear spending boost has been a priority for President Clinton. And on Thursday, the White House sent signals that it was satisfied with the final outcome. In addition, 135 House Democrats--well over half the party caucus--joined 171 Republicans Thursday night to approve the measure.

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The bipartisan harmony arose in large part from a decision to drop certain veto-daring provisions from the must-pass legislation. Gone, for instance, is a controversial measure to help a drug maker obtain a lucrative patent extension. Gone too are some policy measures, known as “riders,” that Clinton called anti-environmental, including one that would have opened up a protected section of North Carolina coastline to development.

“The most troubling, most objectionable provisions appear to be addressed,” White House budget director Jack Lew told reporters.

By far the biggest winner in the midyear spending package will be the Pentagon. Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, argued that the Defense Department’s coffers have been “dangerously depleted” by the unexpectedly high costs of fuel and the Kosovo mission, which includes more than 5,000 U.S. troops in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization force that is trying to hold a fragile peace in the Balkans.

The agreement would allocate more than $6.4 billion for the department, including $2 billion to pay Kosovo expenses, $1.6 billion to defray higher fuel costs, $1.3 billion for military health care and $1.1 billion to bolster defense personnel and readiness.

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The $1.3-billion Colombia initiative is a foreign policy priority for Clinton and for many lawmakers, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). While Colombia will get nearly all the money, Bolivia is slated to receive $110 million, Ecuador $20 million and other countries $18 million to fund a regional offensive against drug cartels.


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