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Spending Bill Heads For Home

Senate Democrats said Tuesday they will stop stalling an overdue $373 billion spending bill over food labeling rules and other issues, bowing to pressure to accept the measure's boosts for veterans and other popular programs.

In its first roll call of the election year, the Senate failed to end Democratic procedural delays that have bogged the measure down since December. The 48-45 vote fell 12 short of the 60 votes needed to free the bill, which would finance education, law enforcement and most federal domestic programs.

Rather than an embarrassing setback for the Senate's Republican leaders and President Bush just hours before his State of the Union address, however, the roll call became more of a symbolic protest by Democrats and a handful of GOP allies.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., removed any drama by predicting the Senate would approve the bill by next week, regardless of whether the problems were resolved. Majority Republicans had said repeatedly they would not alter the food labeling or other provisions that Democrats opposed.

"Our desire is not to kill the bill. Our desire is to give them a chance to fix it," Daschle told reporters before the vote.

He said if Republicans refused to rewrite the disputed provisions, Democrats would use other legislation to wage their fights. The bill would impose a two-year delay on labels identifying the countries many foods come from, would allow an administration move to reduce the number of white-collar workers eligible for overtime pay and would ease limits on the number of television stations a company can own.

"The point is to draw attention to how important this issue is to people across this country," Daschle said of the food labeling provision, which gained prominence after last month's discovery of a Washington state cow with mad cow disease.

That stance was a reversal from more combative talk many Democrats had used during Congress' winter recess. They had never before said they would let the bill pass if their problems were not addressed, and had refused to put limits on how long they would delay the legislation.

The House approved the spending measure in December. Since then, even as mad cow disease became a political issue, administration officials and House GOP leaders have refused to rewrite the measure.

Republicans, however, under pressure from some of their own members, have not ruled out reconsidering food labeling in separate legislation.

"It's an issue we have to resolve," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Democratic aides said there probably would not be enough support to continue delaying the legislation past Tuesday's vote. The bill —
for the budget year that started Oct. 1 — contains increases for veterans' health care, biomedical research, education for the disabled and other programs popular with members of both parties.

Had the delays continued, GOP leaders were threatening to try to push a bill through Congress to finance most programs at last year's levels, which would mean $6 billion less spending than the stalled legislation would provide. That created major pressure to approve the delayed bill, Republicans said.

"Once they hear $3.1 billion in health care is going to be taken away by people who vote against this ... they're going to be calling" lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said, referring to veterans' groups.

The measure also is loaded with money for theater renovations and other home-district projects lawmakers would be loath to lose — 7,932 of them costing $10.7 billion, according to the conservative group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

In addition, Democrats worried further delays could invite campaign-season accusations that they were threatening a federal shutdown, aides said.

Even so, Democratic lawmakers and outside groups supporting them sought to couch Tuesday's vote as a win. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called it "a denunciation" of the administration's overtime plan, while Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said, "We are not going to give up" on the issue.

Congressional approval four months into the budget year is an embarrassment to the GOP, which controls the White House and Congress for the first time since the early 1950s. But Republicans believe the public, focused instead on the economy and Iraq, will barely notice.

The 1,182-page bill would finance 11 Cabinet-level departments and scores of other agencies, because it combines seven spending measures into a single, mammoth package. It covers everything from NASA to housing aid for the poor, from foreign aid to the District of Columbia's local government.

It also includes money for initiatives that members of both parties support. There is money to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, to help countries that achieve democratic reforms and to pay for operations of the FBI, highway construction and the AmeriCorps national service program.

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