Spending Bill in Congress Might Draw Bush Veto

Times Staff Writer

It is the ultimate bargaining chip in the year-end poker sessions between and among the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, Congress and the White House -- a bill so generic that its very name, omnibus, means simply "including many things."

On Thursday, an omnibus spending bill being crafted behind closed doors was emerging as a critical part of the endgame for the first session of the 108th Congress as massive Medicare and energy bills moved toward possible final action.

Lawmakers said the omnibus legislation, expected to be finalized as early as today, would include at least five must-pass spending bills beset by controversy and unable to clear Congress on their own. Its total cost is about $285 billion for the 2004 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

It also could carry other bills seeking an easy ride to President Bush's desk, including one to extend a recently lapsed moratorium on Internet-access taxation. It could be used to entice wavering lawmakers to vote for the energy and Medicare legislation in exchange for pork-barrel projects to help home districts or states.

And it could blow up.

Many lawmakers are inclined to load the bill with two provisions that would dare Bush to cast his first veto. Democrats and some Senate Republicans, including Ted Stevens of Alaska and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, are seeking to include a Senate-passed amendment that would block a Labor Department proposal to deny overtime pay eligibility for at least 644,000 workers.

What's more, negotiators agreed Wednesday evening, in a public conference, to include a measure to overturn a new Federal Communications Commission rule allowing greater consolidation of television station ownership. Lawmakers say no TV network should be allowed to reach more than 35% of viewers nationwide. The FCC on June 2 approved a new cap of 45%.

The White House is threatening to use the president's legislative veto power to protect the administration's media and labor policies.

The face-off was evident Thursday on the congressional challenge to the FCC rule.

One top Senate Republican source said: "It's in the final bill. No question, it will be there."

J.T. Young, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said: "We have a clear position of a veto threat on that provision."

At its core, the omnibus bill funds nine of the 15 Cabinet departments, including Agriculture, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs; several independent agencies, including the FCC, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA; and the District of Columbia government. It would account for more than a third of Bush's discretionary spending budget of $786 billion for fiscal 2004.

In addition, negotiators led by Stevens and Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), chairmen of the Senate and House Appropriations committees, respectively, were closing in on a deal to add about $1 billion in spending to help states modernize voting procedures and machinery, a congressional priority following the disputed 2000 presidential election.

They also were considered likely to add $1.3 billion for veterans' health care and about $350 million for foreign aid sought by the State Department. The White House and lawmakers were also discussing more money for Pell Grants and other education programs.

But battles were brewing over potential cuts to other government programs to balance those increases.

Inevitably, the ongoing talks on the omnibus bill were overlapping with the GOP congressional leadership's frenzied attempts to line up votes to enact energy and Medicare legislation.

One senior Republican who supports the proposal for a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, said that lawmakers undecided whether to back the expansion of the government health-care program might seek to insert provisions into the omnibus bill as a condition for their support.

Lewis said the omnibus could be a magnet for "GGS." His translation: "Good government stuff, and I changed the last word."

On the interaction between the omnibus talks and the Medicare lobbying, Scott Lilly, the top Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee, said Republicans "are using pork as a slush fund to buy votes." Aides to the GOP leadership downplayed, but did not deny, the relationship between the two bills.

Critics of energy legislation before the Senate said a similar horse-trading atmosphere was taking hold in that chamber as Republican leaders seek to fend off a filibuster led by many Democrats and some GOP dissidents.

A top Republican aide said that if the filibuster appeared to be succeeding, "then we're open for business." The clear implication was that an energy bill that critics attack as laden with pet projects could beget yet more pork via the omnibus bill.

There may be a limit to how much the spending bill can hold, in local projects or in legislative amendments, before it falls apart. One of the Senate's spending chieftains, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), said: "What worries me about this omnibus bill is what it may become. What worries me is what appendages this omnibus may grow."

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