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Senate: Spending Bill Can Wait

Democrats blocked the Senate on Tuesday from quickly approving a $373 billion year-end spending bill, leading Republican leader Bill Frist to postpone debate on the sweeping legislation until late January.

The House voted 242-176 Monday to approve the measure that finances nearly every federal domestic agency and weighs in on President Bush's side on policy fights ranging from overtime pay to food labeling.

With most senators out of town on a recess that began before Thanksgiving, Frist wanted to win final congressional approval for the package by voice vote. But as they had said they would do, Democrats angry over provisions on overtime pay and other issues denied Frist the unanimous consent he needed to hold that vote.

Frist, R-Tenn., immediately scheduled a vote for Jan. 20 — the first day of Congress' new session — to try to end delays against the spending bill.

Mr. Bush had personally lobbied Frist in recent days to call the Senate back to the capital next week to complete the spending legislation.

But Frist and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told colleagues last month that they would not have to return to Washington until late January, a timetable both leaders have been reluctant to alter. GOP aides said Frist believed it would be hard to pull enough senators back this month for Republicans to garner the 60 votes they would need to end procedural delays and pass the bill.

The 1,182-page package combines seven spending bills due when the government's budget year began Oct. 1. Thanks to divisions among Republicans, the GOP failed to meet its goal, even though it controls the White House, the House and the Senate for the first time since the 1950s.

Republicans said the measure, which controls a sixth of the $2.2 trillion budget, was an ode to fiscal responsibility.

Combined with six regular spending bills that have already passed, plus the $87.5 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan approved last month, the measure would bring total spending that Congress controls for this year to $875 billion. That is 3 percent over last year, the smallest increase in years.

"Yes, spending has been out of control for a while, but we've started ratcheting it down," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Any spending bills approved in coming months for war or other contingencies would drive up this year's total. Thanks to war and stepped up domestic security efforts, spending controlled by Congress grew by about 15 percent last year, contributing to the record $374 billion federal deficit for 2003.

Agencies whose budgets have not become law have been operating at last year's spending levels. Their authority to do so runs through January, so the Senate has until then to act on the $373 billion package.

Though written mostly by the GOP, 58 Democrats along with the 184 Republicans voted for the bill. Voting against it were 137 Democrats, 38 Republicans and 1 independent.

The bill is loaded with earmarks, or money for museums, industrial parks and other projects for home districts of lawmakers of both parties. Obey said it had more than 7,000 of them worth more than $7.5 billion, a long and ever-expanding tradition that prompted some conservative Republicans to oppose the bill.

Young said earmarks requested by colleagues totaled more than $50 billion.

Democrats complained that the bill provided too little for schools, veterans and other programs. They also were unhappy that it sided with Mr. Bush in several policy fights.

These include provisions that let companies deny overtime to more white-collar workers, postponed country of origin labels on many foods for two years, allowed networks to own more television stations, aided Bush's plan to let private companies do more federal work and required the FBI to destroy gun purchase applications after a day.

The bill provides more than the White House requested for veterans' health care, highway construction projects and even a key Bush priority — stepping up the fight against AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. The president requested $2 billion for the AIDS battle but got $2.4 billion.

Also increasing were aid to low-income school districts, education for the handicapped, the FBI and the AmeriCorps national service program.

The $373 billion includes $45 billion for highway, aviation and mass transit projects that comes from transportation taxes, such as the federal levy on gasoline.

The bill also triggers the expenditure of $447 billion for Medicare and other automatically paid benefits for which no congressional decision-making is required.

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