Senate Budget Bill Sets Up Tough Fight

Times Staff Writer

Senate Republicans proposed a $385-billion spending bill Wednesday that Democrats instantly assailed for reducing funds for education, homeland security and other programs that senators from both parties had endorsed last year.

The bill's introduction set the stage for a short, bruising and overdue debate on spending for the current fiscal year. The Republican-led Congress hopes to get legislation to President Bush, within the budgetary limits he set last year, before he delivers the State of the Union address Jan. 28.

Democrats acknowledged that the legislation, which is unfinished business from the last Congress, can wait no longer. Passage of a spending bill to fund most of the government through Sept. 30 will enable lawmakers to introduce legislation for the 2004 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Of the 13 annual bills that provide for the government's discretionary spending, only two -- one for the Pentagon, the other for military construction -- became law last year. The others died with the president's tacit approval. As a result, much of the government has been running on stopgap resolutions that set spending at the levels for fiscal year 2002. The latest stopgap resolution expires Jan. 31.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the incoming Appropriations Committee chairman, who proposed the bill, said the government can't continue on autopilot. "The sooner we get [this bill] done," Stevens said, "the better off all the agencies are and the better off Congress is."

The GOP bill would cut spending for domestic programs by 1.6% across the board to free up money for election reform, drought relief and Medicare reimbursements.

But Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the committee, denounced the bill for cutting spending $9.8 billion from what key Republicans and Democrats set months ago in unanimous committee votes, when the chamber was under Democratic control.

"The needs of the American people for homeland security, for education, for transportation, for veterans, for public health and other programs have not gone away," Byrd said. "The president has now thrown down the gauntlet.... I am extremely disappointed."

In Byrd's analysis, the new bill would trim $1 billion in security priorities that senators had previously identified. Among them: $362 million to help immigration officials track the entry and exit of foreigners, $46 million to help the FBI fly helicopters and planes in response to terrorist attacks, $8 million to help the U.S. Customs Service inspect cargo and $132 million to help local police and firefighters set up new communication systems.

The legislation, according to Democrats, would also cut by $93.8 million funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission to crack down on corporate fraud.

In education, the legislation would reduce proposals for spending by $1.5 billion. Democrats said that as a result, 447,000 low-income children would stand to lose education services and that the government would fail to help hire 7,150 teachers.

In job training, the bill would cut plans by $534 million.

In early childhood programs, the bill would reduce funding for Head Start by $202.5 million. And a proposal to provide federal aid to low-income individuals for their heating bills would drop by $300 million.

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