Spending Bill Gets Approval
Congress, in one of its final acts of the year, on Saturday approved a massive spending bill that tightened the government’s purse strings in response to a burgeoning federal budget deficit.
The House approved the $388-billion measure, then the Senate followed suit in a postelection push to wind up the business of the lame-duck 108th Congress.
President Bush was expected to sign the bill. Although it curbed a number of White House initiatives, it fulfilled Bush’s goal of clamping down on nondefense spending in the face of a record deficit and mounting costs for U.S. military operations in Iraq.
Final approval appeared in doubt at one point as abortion rights advocates objected to a provision making it easier for healthcare organizations to refuse to provide abortions and related services. But they acquiesced after House leaders promised a separate vote on the provision next year.
Lawmakers said the bill marked a more determined effort to restore fiscal discipline following several years of tax cutting and deficit spending. Excluding funding for defense and foreign aid, funding for domestic programs in the bill grew only 1% from last year.
The House passed the measure on a 344-51 vote; the Senate 65 to 30.
“This is a lean and clean package that adheres to the budgetary limits agreed to by the Congress and the president,” said Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “We have resisted many requests for additions to the package that would have busted the budget by billions of dollars.”
The spending bill was supposed to be the last piece of business for the 108th Congress. But the House is now expected to come back into session next week to deal with a provision that ran into Senate opposition after House members had already voted and headed home.
Democrats contended the provision could undermine the privacy of income tax returns. Republican leaders said they never intended such a thing and promptly won Senate passage of a measure striking the language. Senate Republican leaders agreed to hold off sending the spending bill to the president until the House acted to remove the language dealing with tax returns.
Another issue is standing in the way of final adjournment: Lawmakers are holding out hope for an agreement on legislation to overhaul the nation’s intelligence-gathering system after a compromise proposal was blocked by key House Republicans on Saturday.
The omnibus spending bill drew objections from lawmakers favoring abortion rights because of a provision added to the measure that would limit the ability of federal, state and local governments to require hospitals and health maintenance organizations to provide abortion services or referrals.
“When the women in America find out what is happening here, there is going to be a great outrage,” said Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-N.Y.).
Supporters of the provision said it was necessary to protect healthcare organizations that opposed abortion from being forced to offer the procedure. But opponents characterized the provision as a “gag rule.”
Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma) assailed the measure as “nothing more than a payoff to the religious right.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) called it “an extraordinary sneak attack on women’s rights and a disgraceful display of ideology over health.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) threatened to stage a filibuster over the provision but relented after receiving a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to schedule a vote early next year on the provision.
However, such a vote will probably be merely symbolic since a repeal measure is unlikely to pass the House.
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), who sought the provision, said it was intended to protect healthcare and insurance providers “from being forced by the government to provide, refer or pay for abortions.”
The provision would bar federal funding to any government agency that “subjects any institutional or individual healthcare entity to discrimination on the basis that the healthcare entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of or refer for abortions.”
The antiabortion provision was regarded as one of the first signs of the clout that conservatives expected to gain from the Nov. 2 elections after increasing the GOP majorities in the House and Senate.
The provision was among a number of special causes and pet projects crammed into the must-pass measure completed just hours before it came before the House and Senate.
Some lawmakers said the bill didn’t go far enough to cut spending.
The bill, for example, provides up to $2 million to buy a former presidential yacht for a Navy museum and $250,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
The bill will fund much of the federal government for the 2005 fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It takes the place of nine separate bills that Congress normally passes to fund departments, such as Education, Labor, Interior, Commerce, Justice, State, and Health and Human Services, as well as dozens of other federal agencies.
Critics of the 1,000-page bill said it was unlikely that lawmakers read it before voting.
“There are things in here that almost nobody knows about,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
Congressional appropriators said they were forcing Bush to share in the belt-tightening. The bill provides less than the president sought for a signature program to promote economic and political reforms by developing countries, an arts initiative championed by First Lady Laura Bush, and programs to promote sexual abstinence, develop lower-polluting coal-fired plants and help ex-offenders find and keep jobs.
No additional money was provided for a Bush effort to underwrite further research on a “bunker-buster” nuclear weapon designed to burrow underground and destroy targets, a program that critics say runs contrary to U.S. efforts to promote nuclear nonproliferation.
But lawmakers, eager to avoid a confrontation with the president that might force him to cast his first veto, dropped a number of controversial measures that the White House opposed. Bush administration rules that critics said would have denied overtime pay to millions of workers and another one making it harder to travel to Cuba survived.
Democrats complained that the bill shortchanged their priorities, providing less than a 2% increase for education and slashing funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, especially for water quality projects.
Still, many Democrats said they voted for the bill because the only alternative was continuing to fund much of the government at last year’s even lower levels.
“This bill doesn’t even come close to accomplishing what our constituents expect from this Congress,” said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas). “Perhaps while Republicans are enjoying their Thanksgiving vacation, they will take a moment to give thanks that they don’t have to face the electorate for two more years.”
The bill addressed high-profile public concerns, such as providing $100 million to help ensure that an adequate supply of flu vaccine would be available in the future, and creating a National Gang Intelligence Center in the Justice Department to fight gang-related crime.
Of importance to California and other border states, the bill provides $305 million nationwide to reimburse states for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants convicted of crimes. Bush proposed providing no money, but border-state lawmakers from both parties argued that the federal government should allow the reimbursements because it was responsible for controlling the borders.
Among California projects: $1 million is applied toward construction of an additional lane to the off-ramp of the northbound Ventura Freeway at Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley to help ease congestion.
The partisan wrangling that has characterized this congressional session continued up until the end.
When Democrats continued to complain about the provision dealing with income tax returns, even after Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) called the language a mistake and pledged to strike it, Stevens grew angry. “Isn’t that enough?” he said, pounding the table repeating his pledge to strike the language. “Do I have to get down on my knees and beg the other side?”
While lawmakers called the spending measure austere, Keith Ashdown, who monitors Congress for the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the bill the “fattest legislative hog that we have ever seen.... If this bill is an indicator of what’s to come, we will be swimming up a river of red ink for quite some time.”
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How they voted
Congress passed the $388-billion spending bill for fiscal 2005 Saturday. The House passed the measure 344 to 51, the Senate, 60 to 35. Here’s how the California delegation voted:
Barbara Boxer (D): N
Dianne Feinstein (D): Y
Joe Baca: Y
Xavier Becerra: Y
Howard L. Berman: Y
Lois Capps: N
Dennis A. Cardoza: Y
Susan A. Davis: Y
Calvin Dooley: Y
Anna G. Eshoo: Y
Sam Farr: Y
Bob Filner: N
Jane Harman: Y
Michael M. Honda: Y
Tom Lantos: Y
Barbara Lee: N
Zoe Lofgren: N
Robert T. Matsui: Y
Juanita Millender-McDonald: X
George Miller: Y
Grace F. Napolitano: Y
Nancy Pelosi: Y
Lucille Roybal-Allard: Y
Linda T. Sanchez: Y
Loretta Sanchez: Y
Adam B. Schiff: Y
Brad Sherman: Y
Hilda L. Solis: Y
Pete Stark: N
Ellen O. Tauscher: N
Mike Thompson: Y
Maxine Waters: X
Diane E. Watson: Y
Henry A. Waxman: Y
Lynn Woolsey: N
Mary Bono: Y
Ken Calvert: Y
Christopher Cox: N
Randy “Duke” Cunningham: Y
John T. Doolittle: Y
David Dreier: Y
Elton Gallegly: Y
Wally Herger: Y
Duncan Hunter: Y
Darrell E. Issa: Y
Jerry Lewis: Y
Howard P. “Buck” McKeon: Y
Gary G. Miller: Y
Devin Nunes: Y
Doug Ose: Y
Richard W. Pombo: Y
George P. Radanovich: Y
Dana Rohrabacher: N
Ed Royce: N
Bill Thomas: Y
X denotes those who did not vote.
Source: Associated Press