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Pork Barrel Potshots

President Bush is hailing Congress for completing a belated $397.4 billion measure financing nearly every federal agency, but Democrats say the measure is far less fiscally conservative than the president claims.

Nearly five months into the government's fiscal year - and even more months of budget deadlock between President Bush and lawmakers - Congress finally approved the mammoth package late Thursday with wide bipartisan majorities. The House vote was 338-83, while Senate approval was by 76-20.

"This budget will provide valuable resources for priorities such as homeland security, military operations and education, while adhering to the spending restraint set forth in my budget," said President Bush. "I look forward to signing this legislation and to continuing a course of fiscal discipline."

The measure provides money for every agency but the Pentagon, whose budget was completed last year.

It also bore thousands of home-district projects for senators and representatives totaling billions of dollars. That included the $90,000 that Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, took credit for winning to create a bilingual audio tour for the cowgirl museum in Fort Worth, where she was once mayor.

One portion of the bill alone had 885 such projects for community development grants.

The measure ended up containing billions of dollars less than Democrats wanted for domestic security, land acquisition and other initiatives. They noted that even so, the measure cost well more than the $385 billion Mr. Bush initially demanded.

In the final hectic days of negotiations, House and Senate Republicans threw in $3.1 billion to help farmers and ranchers, including those hurt by drought and floods; $1.5 billion to help states revamp their election systems; and $54 billion over 10 years to increase Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals.

Along with $31.8 billion for road building - $8 billion more than President Bush proposed - none of those items counted toward the bill's price tag because they come from different parts of the budget. The bill also gained $10 billion originally sought by the Bush administration for added defense spending, plus $1.5 billion to help local governments improve voting systems.

"It's hypocrisy writ large," Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said of Republican claims that they were holding the line on spending.

The bill's scope was underlined by its sheer size: It was more than 13 inches high, weighed 32 pounds and exceeded 3,000 pages, inviting opponents to use it as something of a stage prop during debate.

"Please tell me what's in that thing," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.

Republicans and many Democrats defended it for the money it provided for schools, biomedical research, veterans health care and other popular programs.

"It does address many important needs of the country," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla.

Democrats complained it shortchanged education, domestic security and park lands, and had provisions that could increase logging in national forests. Conservative Republicans were angry that it spent too much on lawmakers' home district projects, which critics call pork.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it was "the mother of all appropriations bills."

Other projects included $50,000 more for research on shiitake mushrooms at the South Central Family Farm Research Center in Booneville, Ark.; $45,000 for a Korean War memorial in Athens, Ala.; and $400,000 to help the Nevada Wildlife Division return displaced wildlife to their natural habitats.

Fishing interests on both coasts, the timber and energy industries, and farmers north and south also benefited. Democrats complained that obscure provisions helped a Georgia chicken producer that wants to label its products "organic" even though they don't meet required government criteria, and provided $15 million to 10 Texas diary farmers who stood to lose money because their herds were ill.

The Brady Campaign, a gun control group, complained that the measure contained a last-minute addition it said would exempt the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from some requests for data under the Freedom of Information Act. The group wants to force the bureau to disclose information on gun dealers who sell to criminals.

It would also roll back a provision enacted last year giving vaccine manufacturers protection against lawsuits from people claiming that their products have caused autism in some children.

The measure would provide $53.1 billion for the Education Department, $3.1 billion more than Mr. Bush requested.

The measure also included:

  • $15.4 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, $500 million over last year. It included $50 million to let the space agency investigate the Feb. 1 destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, which killed seven astronauts.
  • Nearly $11.8 billion for school districts serving large numbers of low-income students, $1.4 billion more than last year.
  • $3.5 billion for local police, firefighters, emergency personnel and other "first responders." Democrats argued that President Bush had promised a "new" $3.5 billion for these programs and that the figure was only $1.2 billion more than was provided a year ago.

    By Alan Fram

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