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Spending bill clears the House

Times Staff Writer

Seeking to end a months-long standoff with President Bush, the House on Monday night approved an omnibus $516-billion spending bill that hews closely to the White House’s budget limits but shifts billions of dollars to the Democratic majority’s priorities.

The 1,482-page measure, which would fund most of the federal government for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, was approved 253-154.

Lawmakers then voted 206-201 to add $31 billion for military operations in Afghanistan, but the bill includes no money for the war in Iraq. The Senate, as early as today, is expected to add $40 billion for Iraq. The bill would then return a final time to the House.

House Democrats came up with the political two-step to allow antiwar members to first vote for a budget that increases popular programs, then against one with war money. The bill is expected to pass the House the second time on the strength of Republican votes.

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The catchall spending bill is needed because only one of the 12 annual spending bills -- the one that funds the Pentagon -- has been signed into law. The other 11 bills, which fund all of the other federal agencies, are wrapped into the unwieldy package.

Some of its most controversial parts are not related to spending but policy changes.

Although the bill includes $3 billion in emergency spending to tighten security along the border, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) assailed a provision that he said would eliminate the requirement for double-layered fencing along 700 miles of the southern border.

The bill also includes a noncontroversial provision repealing the 1985 law banning the use of federal funds to build a tunnel to extend Los Angeles’ subway to the city’s Westside.

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Some Democrats made clear their displeasure with having to settle for less money for their priorities or risk a continued showdown with the White House that could shut down the government, which is operating on a stopgap measure that expires Friday.

“In the face of an intransigent president and his allies in Congress, this legislation is the best we can do for the American people,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

The White House threatened a veto Monday because the bill “fails to provide the needed funding for our troops in combat,” but indicated it was pleased that Democrats cut their spending demands, a signal Bush is likely to approve it when the war money is added.

“We are on the verge of having a spending package the president may be able to sign,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. “I say ‘may be able to sign’ because this package, lacking adequate funding for our troops, is still incomplete.”

The text of the massive bill became available before the vote, sending congressional aides, lobbyists and watchdog groups scrambling to scour its contents.

Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) complained the bill resembled “Frankenstein’s monster more than a serious product of deliberative legislation.”

Democrats sought to highlight how they have shifted spending priorities after a year in the majority, even if it was less dramatic than they had hoped.

The bill would increase funding for Democratic priorities, sometimes at the expense of Bush initiatives.

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The bill, for example, would provide $5 billion, or $544 million more than Bush requested, to combat AIDS around the world, while giving the president $1.5 billion, about half of what the president wanted, for the Millennium Challenge Account, a favorite program of his aimed at spurring economic and political reforms in foreign countries in exchange for aid.

It also provides about $1.7 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, a $248-million increase for a program the White House had wanted to cut, while providing $145 million less than Bush requested to enlarge the nation’s oil reserve.

The measure underscored the limits of the Democratic-controlled Congress in governing with a narrow majority in the Senate and with a president with a veto pen.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) called the measure “totally inadequate to meet the long-term investment needs of the country” but “a whole lot better than the country would have without a Democratic Congress.”

Of importance to California, the bill provides $410 million, a slight increase, to reimburse state and local governments for jailing illegal immigrants convicted of crimes. Bush had proposed no money for the program; California receives about 40% of the money.

The bill’s border provisions upset some House conservatives who also complained that they would require cumbersome consultations with border communities about the best place to put fencing. But a number of Senate Republicans have expressed concern that fencing might hurt the economies of border communities that rely on trade.

The omnibus bill also requires the secretary of Homeland Security to explain why fencing is preferable to high-tech measures, such as cameras or other security measures. The administration contends that fencing is not necessary all across the border, particularly in mountainous areas or broad desert plains that are difficult to cross.

The bill also includes language to repeal a measure passed by the Republican-controlled Congress at the behest of California’s Hunter to allow big-game hunts on Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park.

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“This marks the end to a long battle over Santa Rosa Island,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said Hunter’s measure threatened efforts to carry out a court-approved settlement to remove nonnative game by 2011 to protect rare plants and endangered species.

Democrats originally sought to spend about $22 billion more than the president requested for domestic programs, saying it was a small amount compared to the billions that have been spent on the war in Iraq. But Bush insisted that Congress not exceed $933 billion.

Democrats did include an additional $7.5 billion in emergency funding, exempt from the budget limit, for such purposes as drought relief for farmers, rebuilding of the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed last summer, and providing security at next year’s political conventions.

The bill also provides $3.7 billion more than the president sought for veterans’ care.

As one of the last, must-pass measures of the year, the bill has also become a magnet for lawmakers’ pet interests and last-ditch efforts to settle unresolved issues.

The bill includes $18.5 billion sought by retiring Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a champion of nuclear power, for controversial loan guarantees to spur development of nuclear power.

And it includes a measure opposed by the administration that would block funding for a demonstration program to allow Mexican trucks to travel throughout the United States.

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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