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GOP Leaders Settle Spending Spat

Republican congressional leaders resolved most of the lingering disputes over a compromise $397.4 billion spending bill on Wednesday and prepared to begin pushing the government-wide package through Congress.

In a closed door meeting led by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Republicans decided to pare back some — but not all — Alaska logging provisions that had drawn the ire of moderate Republicans, Democrats and environmentalists, said congressional officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

Removing another obstacle, they also decided to include $3.1 billion in extra aid for farmers, to be paid for by finding savings from the huge agriculture bill enacted last year. Top farm-state lawmakers were instructed to quickly resolve remaining differences over where those savings will come from, and how the aid will be distributed to growers and ranchers.

"We're right at closure," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., after the private session.

Top Republicans were hoping to push the long-overdue bill through Congress before the start of lawmakers' Presidents' Day recess.

The measure would finance foreign aid and all domestic agencies for the remaining seven and a half months of the government's fiscal year, with increases for education and veterans health care but reductions for land conservation programs.

Passing the legislation, which was supposed to be finished by last Oct. 1, would let GOP leaders begin to focus on President Bush's proposed tax cuts and, perhaps, a war with Iraq.

Minority Democrats in the House and Senate were expected to complain that the measure contains billions less than they wanted for local law enforcement agencies and other domestic security programs, environmental and some education programs.

But the bill seemed likely to win approval anyway, given impetus by the added funds in that it does contain for many programs.

The measure is also expected to include billions in spending that lawmakers won for thousands of home-district projects. In the closing days of House-Senate bargaining, the bill also got an extra $10 billion for defense and intelligence spending.

"This now has become a national defense bill, an anti-terrorism bill, and that makes it even more of a must-pass bill," Young told reporters.

In Wednesday's meeting among Republican leaders, they decided to drop language sought by the timber industry and Alaska lawmakers that would have exempted the state from a ban imposed by President Clinton on roads and other development in many large parcels of federal land, officials said.

The language could have opened large tracts of the enormous Tongass and Chugach national forests to development.

They said the compromise bill will contain language approved by the Senate that would block legal challenges to a forthcoming Forest Service decision on whether to designate any of Tongass as wilderness areas where virtually no development — or logging — is allowed.

The service is expected to decide against a wilderness designation in a win for timber companies and a blow to environmentalists.

Also to be included was language sought Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, that would expand the role logging companies play in managing many national forests. In return, those companies are allowed to remove trees from the forests.

Lawmakers were releasing little detail about the enormous bill.

The revival of enormous federal deficits has pressured President Bush to keep the bill's price tag from ballooning further than it already has.

Even so, the final version of the measure was expected to exceed by more than $10 billion the $385 billion that Mr. Bush originally insisted should be the limit.

Lawmakers were refusing to disclose details of the enormous bill until the final version is completed. According to aides and lobbyists, the emerging compromise also includes:

  • $250 million to fight famine in Africa, half the $500 million Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., pushed through the Senate;
  • $1.4 billion to battle AIDS in Africa and elsewhere overseas, including $100 million out of a $180 million amendment added in the Senate by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.
  • $31.8 billion for highways, more than $8 billion higher than Bush originally proposed due to waning federal gasoline tax collections.
  • $34 million for the U.N. Population Fund's international family planning efforts. The money is unlikely to be spent because Bush could withhold it if he should decide, as he did last year, that the agency tolerates coerced abortions in China, which the U.N. agency denies.