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Senate OKs Massive Spending Bill

The Senate approved a massive $390 billion measure Thursday financing most federal agencies, blessing the long-delayed last chunk of this year's budget that stalled last fall in an election-season standoff with President Bush over spending.

The bill's 69-29 passage ended the first prolonged battle this year in the new Senate. The winners were the chamber's majority Republicans, who battled — and sometimes used budget sleight of hand — to keep the price tag within limits Mr. Bush demanded.

Nineteen Democrats joined 50 Republicans in supporting the measure, while 27 Democrats, one independent and one Republican — Sen. Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois — were opposed. Passage set the stage for what could be prolonged negotiations with the House before a final measure can be sent to Mr. Bush for his signature.

White House budget chief Mitchell Daniels, a frequent sparring partner with Congress in disputes over spending, lauded the Senate for moving closer to finishing this year's budget in what he said was a fiscally prudent way.

"They have successfully joined with the president in saving taxpayers billions in unnecessary spending," Daniels said in a written statement.

Mr. Bush and Republicans said the bill reflects diminished resources caused by revived deficits and the need to focus on fighting terrorism and restoring the economy. But Democrats said the wide-ranging bill shortchanges everything from hiring food inspectors to helping low-income school districts.

"They once again have failed to address some really critical areas: hospitals, education, homeland security," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said of Republicans.

The measure is a collection of 11 bills financing every agency except the Pentagon for the federal budget year that started Oct. 1 and is now nearly one-third over. Last year, Mr. Bush demanded lower spending than Democrats and some Republicans wanted, and House GOP leaders chose to avoid a potentially embarrassing campaign-season defeat for the president by shelving work on the legislation.

The Defense Department's budget was enacted last fall.

The sixth day of debate saw Democrats once again try and fail to boost spending for several programs, proposals that even in defeat would draw political distinctions between them and the GOP.

One amendment by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to add $548 million to the $430 million already in the bill for five minority health programs, was rejected by 51-47. Another by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to provide $4 billion to ease scheduled cuts in reimbursements for Medicare providers lost by 56-41.

"We don't have unlimited money and we can't solve every problem in the world and not every problem can be solved by spending more money," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told reporters.

In the kind of day that inspired the classic comparison of legislating with sausage making, senators and aides huddling in the back of the Senate chamber argued, lobbied and cut deals on scores of last-minute additions to the package.

Periodically, clusters of amendments carrying lawmakers' pet projects would be approved by voice vote, often with only the number assigned to each one being announced.

In that manner, the Senate approved $500 million in food aid for African nations ravaged by famine. The Senate had rejected a $600 million version of the measure on Wednesday by 48-46 in a vote that seemed to discomfort several Republicans, but sponsor Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., lobbied GOP leaders Thursday and won a reversal.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won language letting his home state operate its own retirement system for some public employees. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., got a provision pressuring the International Red Cross to allow participation in its activities by Israel's Magen David Adom Society, which the 178-nation organization has spurned.

Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, D-La., got $3 million to help their state's oyster industry recover from recent hurricanes. The Senate also accepted an amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., clamping a moratorium on the total information awareness program, a Defense Department project aimed at mining government data to identifying potential terrorists.

Even before the final piles of amendments were approved, the bill was loaded with hundreds of projects for lawmakers' states totaling billions of dollars, aides said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lost efforts to delete two such items: water projects in Devil's Lake, N.D., and the Yazoo pump project in central Mississippi.

During the six days of debate, when GOP leaders realized they could not defeat some Democratic amendments, they figured out creative ways to accommodate them within the $390 billion price tag that Bush supports.

They shoehorned in $120 million Thursday for community health programs but said the bill's cost would not grow. That is because budget analysts reclassified money in the measure for farmers and Medicare providers as a category of spending that is counted apart from the bill's overall price tag, aides said, freeing up room for added spending.

Wednesday night, they included an extra $1.5 billion for education for disabled children. But it won't count against the bill's cost because the money is for fiscal 2004, which starts next Oct. 1.

Senate completion would set up bargaining with the Republican-led House for a compromise package that leaders hope to send Bush by early February.

But it was unclear how the final version would stay within limits Bush wants while accommodating extra money the Senate approved for education, election reform and other programs — increases the Senate paid for by 2.9 percent across-the-board cuts in the rest of the bill. House aides say their bargainers will not accept those cuts.

"I am zero concerned we'll come out with a bill that is one penny over what the president has said he will sign," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a Senate GOP leader.

The White House has already objected to the bill's lack of restrictions on federal funds for abortions for federal workers and federal prisoners. And the measure has less than Mr. Bush wants for several programs, including disaster relief and Pell grants for low-income college students.