Lawmakers Push Spending Bill Through House; Allocate $33.8B for Highway Projects

Wed December 10, 2003 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Republicans pushed a tardy $373 billion spending package through the House on Monday despite conservative objections that the measure had too many hometown projects and Democratic complaints that it would hurt workers.

The 242-176 vote left the bill in the hands of the Senate, where its fate seemed uncertain. The GOP’s narrow majority there may not be enough to overcome efforts by Democrats –– and perhaps some Republicans –– to try killing the measure when the Senate votes on it later this month or in January.

The vast bill would finance most of the government’s domestic programs, including 11 Cabinet-level departments and scores of other agencies for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Its 1,182 pages make detailed decisions about how nearly one-sixth of the federal budget will be spent, covering everything from education to foreign aid to the exploration of space.

It is also loaded with decisions about numerous federal policies, mostly decided in favor of President Bush’s proposals. These include rules governing overtime pay, media ownership, and the destruction of records of gun purchases after 24 hours.

"Anybody who wants to find something at fault, something to complain about in this bill, they can do it" because of its size, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla. "But I can tell you it’s the best product we could provide."

In a telephone call last week, Bush asked Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to try to get the bill through the Senate by mid-December. Frist demurred, fearing defeat, but he didn’t rule out reversing himself.

Bush’s eagerness underscores administration initiatives the bill carries. These include big increases for battling AIDS in Africa and the AmeriCorps national service program, and a provision setting up the first federally financed vouchers for private schools with a $13 million program for Washington, D.C.

The bill has plenty to offer lawmakers of both parties.

It is stocked with money for roads, hospitals and thousands of local projects worth billions of dollars. It has big increases for veterans health care, education for the disabled, highway construction, farm conservation and other items popular with lawmakers.

The package is an amalgam of the seven remaining spending bills for the current fiscal year. Six other spending measures have been completed.

The bill includes:

• $33.8 billion for highway projects, $2.2 billion more than last year.

• $28.6 billion for veterans’ health care, $2.9 billion over last year.

• $2.4 billion to battle AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa and the Caribbean.

• $1 billion for the Millennium Challenge Account –– special aid to countries embracing human rights and democratic institutions.

• $444 million for AmeriCorps, the most ever, to support the 75,000 volunteers Bush wants.

The measure also has increases for low-income school districts, updating local election systems, food safety, FBI anti-terrorism efforts and biomedical research.

Overall, the bill would allow spending of $820 billion this year, more than one-third of the entire $2.2 trillion budget.

Of the grand total, $373 billion is for spending that cannot occur unless Congress decides to do so, including money for transportation projects that comes from fuel taxes. The rest of the bill involves automatically covered benefits, such as Medicare and Medicaid.