House OKs $123B Spending Plan

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The House gave rapid approval Thursday to $123 billion for this year's education, health and labor programs as lawmakers continued a bipartisan, if belated, push to finish the year's routine spending bills.

The measure, almost $14 billion larger than last year's, reflected a budget deal that President Bush and Congress struck two weeks ago. Members of both parties agreed to withhold contentious amendments to speed work on a measure that traditionally sees testy battles over abortion, schools and other issues that can last days.

After less than seven hours of debate that saw a handful of amendments rejected, lawmakers approved the measure by 373-43.

The final hurdle was cleared after Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa., withdrew an amendment that would have barred federal aid for any school dispensing morning-after birth control pills to minors. She said she will pursue her effort in separate legislation.

Most Democrats and Republicans want to clear housekeeping work so they can concentrate on countering terrorism and rallying the economy.

Many of them found further motivation from the big increases the bill would bestow on many programs, including elementary and secondary schools, after-school centers, the National Institutes of Health, and job training for workers who have lost their jobs. Included is $393 million — $100 million more than last year — for efforts against bioterrorism.

Overall, the measure would provide $7 billion more than Mr. Bush requested at the start of the year.

The bill's total is $396 billion. But more than two-thirds of it is for automatically made payments under Medicaid, Medicare and other programs.

So far, Congress has cleared none of the 13 annual spending bills for fiscal 2002, which began Oct. 1.

A measure temporarily keeping agencies functioning expires Oct. 16, so the House and Senate used a voice vote around midnight Thursday to approve a bill extending that date through Oct. 23. Congress hopes to adjourn for the year by month's end.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its own $123 billion version of the labor, health and education spending bill containing similar spending increases. The vote was 29-0.

That bill would for the first time conditionally allow limited, federally financed stem cell research. The House bill has no such provision.

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The stem cell language, written by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., would let Mr. Bush follow through on his August plan to restrict the research to the 64 stem cell lines that he said already exist.

It also would let Mr. Bush go further and allow stem cell resarch using embryos that would otherwise be destroyed, if permission were granted by the people whose fertility treatments created the embryos.

The fate of the language seemed unclear. Conservatives on the committee, including Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the proposal needed additional discussion. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush would stand by his earlier decision on stem cell research policy.

Critics have said Bush overstated the number of viable stem cell lines.

Scientists hope to use stem cells — which can grow into any type of human tissue — to treat Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other diseases.

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