Late Omnibus Spending Bill May Be Too Much for Congress to Digest This Year

Times Staff Writer

As Congress prepared to wrap up its business for 2003, Republicans on Tuesday rolled out a $328-billion spending bill so beset by controversies over guns, labor laws, media rules and other matters that even its advocates conceded it could stall short of enactment before year's end.

The peculiar timing of the bill's release -- just as senators were leaving town for an extended Thanksgiving break, having completed most of their legislative work for the year -- underscored the high stakes for the Bush administration and the Republican leaders in Congress if it falters.

The bill would fund, for the fiscal year that began nearly two months ago, 11 of the 15 Cabinet departments, several independent government agencies, the foreign aid program and the District of Columbia government. It carries such presidential priorities as $2.4 billion for international AIDS relief, $727 million in increased education aid for disadvantaged children and a $423-million boost in the FBI's efforts against terrorism.

Those items and billions of dollars' worth of other spending increases sought by President Bush and Congress will be at risk if the fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill is not passed soon.

For the moment, the vast sections of the government covered by the legislation are frozen at fiscal 2003 spending levels until Jan. 31. Yet many lawmakers acknowledged that the spending bill, which Democrats said was more than a foot tall at an estimated 2,500 pages, was in peril even before it was formally filed Tuesday afternoon in the House of Representatives.

"The omnibus bill is parked and the engine is cold," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, who said he would fight any move for rapid-fire passage.

One of the bill's principal sponsors, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told reporters: "We may, in order to save the bill, be forced to take it back to conference."

That would mean reopening negotiations on a host of policy disputes. As Stevens expounded on that possibility, Rep. C. W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, standing next to him, grimaced and coughed loudly to signal his discontent.

The House Republican leadership said it expected to call members back on Dec. 8 for a vote on the omnibus bill.

Senate Republican leaders said they would try to schedule a December session to approve it soon after the House vote. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Democrats had agreed to a Dec. 9 Senate session and a possible voice vote on the measure.

But some leading Democrats, who wield power as a minority in the chamber, were not inclined to cooperate. Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned that the Senate might not meet again until January. Reid blamed the delay on White House "meddling" and charged that Bush, through veto threats, was treating Congress like "a king and his court."

The bill, massing together seven pieces of legislation that ordinarily move through Congress individually, has been a magnet for policy disputes between Congress and the administration and between Republicans and Democrats.

One provision, championed by the National Rifle Assn., would require the destruction of records related to background checks on gun purchases within 24 hours if law enforcement officials find no immediate red flags. Critics say the records should be saved for at least 90 days.

Another would strike a compromise between the administration and Congress on television network ownership rules, preventing any single company from owning enough TV stations to reach more than 39% of viewers nationwide. Many lawmakers sought a 35% cap, and the Federal Communications Commission approved a 45% cap. The compromise, Republicans said, would avert a Bush veto.

Yet another controversy centered on a provision that both houses of Congress supported in roll call votes but was dropped from the final version of the bill. The provision would have blocked new labor regulations that critics say jeopardize overtime pay for up to 8 million workers. Another White House veto threat forced it from the bill.

On funding, the bill hews to Bush's demand to keep ordinary discretionary spending at no more than $786 billion for fiscal 2004. To defray the costs of various add-ons, lawmakers agreed to cut non-defense spending by 0.59% across the board.

For California, the bill includes $225 million to clear away about 1 million trees killed by bark beetles and to help prevent mudslides and provide relief for farmers whose crops were damaged in this year's wildfires.

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