Congress Approves Spending Bill


Congress gave final approval Friday to a $6.5-billion spending bill that will cover unanticipated needs ranging from defense cost overruns to relief for low-income families hit by high power bills.

The bipartisan compromise measure also provides $20 million for water conservation in the Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border, where farmers are locked in a water rights battle with the federal government.

The farmers have not received irrigation water this year because of federal decisions that dedicated the water to two endangered species of fish.

The funding bill, which passed the House, 375 to 30, stayed within the budget limits dictated by the Bush administration and was immediately shipped to the White House for the president to sign. The money supplements the budget passed last year and will cover additional spending needs until the end of the current fiscal year, in 10 weeks.

While the vast majority of the funds, $5.6 billion, will go to cover defense expenses, $300 million--double the president's request--is earmarked to help poor residents pay for heating and cooling their homes. And the rising cost of power, as well as other measures to alleviate power demands in the West, shows up in other provisions, including $735 million for the Pentagon's power costs and $47 million for a Defense Department conservation plan in California that would make military bases self-sufficient and get them off the state's power grid during electricity shortages.

A much smaller sliver, $1.3 million, will be set aside to help California address a serious bottleneck in its electric grid. The funds will be used to study the proposed expansion of Path 15, an electricity transmission line between Northern and Southern California that has proved too narrow to handle power needs.

Republicans had earlier fought Democratic efforts to make the supplemental bill even more about energy needs, adhering largely to White House marching orders to keep costs under wraps.

One area where there was wide agreement, however, was on providing more help to poor families affected by high utility bills. The new energy aid will go to bolster the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income and elderly citizens pay heating and air-conditioning bills. In California, a family of four must earn less than $33,125 to be eligible, and the average benefit is $326 a year.

In Oregon, Klamath Basin farmers, who gathered at a protest site in the area, reacted with indifference and anger to the $20-million appropriation. "This thing isn't about the money; it's about the water," said Gavin Rajnus, 33, a fourth-generation farmer from Malin, Ore. "It's like handing everybody $500. It's pocket change."

The farmers have not received irrigation water this year because of federal decisions that dedicated the water to two endangered species of fish.

"This assistance is desperately needed, but it is just the beginning," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who is the co-sponsor with Rep. Wally Herger (R-Marysville) of other relief measures before Congress.

While the spending bill remained within the budget boundaries, leaders from both sides of the aisle cautioned that it may not be large enough to take care of actual needs. The powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), called the measure a "Band-Aid."


Times environmental writer Deborah Schoch in Klamath Falls, Ore., contributed to this story. Associated Press also contributed.

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