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Full Speed Ahead, Democrats Or Not

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Tuesday he will push ahead with a long overdue $373 billion spending bill and not bow to Democratic demands to drop language delaying food labeling.

He did not rule out that the dispute over labels — which would identify a food's country of origin — might be addressed in separate, later legislation.

Despite that fight — which has intensified since tests showed a Holstein in Washington state had mad cow disease — Frist predicted the massive bill would eventually be sent to President Bush "intact" because of its increases in spending on program for veterans and other popular programs.

"I think there is enough momentum behind it to pass it as it is," Frist, R-Tenn., told reporters just hours before a Senate showdown vote on whether to end delaying tactics against the spending measure. "The timing, I don't know," he said.

Frist, who spoke as Congress began its election-year session, conceded that Republicans might not have the votes Tuesday to halt the procedural delays by Democrats and some Republicans. The House approved the bill in December.

"I haven't counted them yet, but not quite to 60," Frist said, referring to the number of Senate votes needed to move to a vote on final passage.

The Senate was revisiting the bill, which stalled last fall, just hours before Mr. Bush was to deliver his State of the Union address. GOP aides said the Senate might vote again on the issue later this week.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., cited problems with the bill including food labeling, an administration regulation that critics say will let employers end overtime pay to millions of workers, and new rules letting media companies own more television stations.

"We should take the time to fix the bill's problems, because they affect millions of American families," Daschle said on the Senate floor.

Eager to get the long-running issue off the Senate's plate, top Republicans were pointedly reminding colleagues that the bill, which combines seven spending measures into one, contained thousands of home-state projects.

Republican leaders also were threatening that failure would mean a pared-down version would take the bill's place — $6 billion smaller and shorn of lawmakers' projects and increases for popular programs.

But, if anything, the odds of Senate passage have grown bleaker since the House approved the measure in December. The discovery of a Holstein cow with mad cow disease in Washington state has intensified anger over a provision in the bill that would delay country-of-origin labels on foods. Democrats also are upset about overtime pay and other provisions of the bill, and conservatives say the measure is too expensive.

And with the presidential campaign season well under way, both parties are eager to draw distinctions with each other, rather than settle differences.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote Frist on Friday that if the bill stalls, Republicans should negotiate a compromise dropping controversial provisions.

If the fallback option is a trimmed-down bill at last year's spending levels, "that is a choice of the Republican leadership," Byrd wrote. "It would be another example of putting political interests ahead of the best interests of the American people."

Overall, the bill contains 7,932 home-district projects costing $10.7 billion, according to a count by the conservative group Taxpayers for Common Sense. It covers the budgets of 11 Cabinet departments and dozens of other agencies. Among the agencies whose budgets have already been enacted into law are the Defense and the Homeland Security departments.

Meanwhile, the programs covered by the omnibus bill have been operating at last year's spending levels.

The bill would finance nearly every domestic agency — plus foreign aid and the District of Columbia's municipal government — in the federal budget year that started last Oct. 1. It includes increases over last year for veterans health care, education and fighting AIDS overseas, plus thousands of road, park and other home-district projects for lawmakers.

The discovery of mad cow disease in this country elevated a fight over food labeling to a top priority. The bill would delay the labeling requirement for two years, which is supported by the Bush administration and many Texas cattle interests but opposed by many beef producers in the North and Midwest.

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