Spending Fight Not Over On Hill

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AP / CBS
White House and congressional bargainers finished crafting a $373 billion, year-end spending package Tuesday, but the top Senate author warned that late changes demanded by the Bush administration put passage in jeopardy.

The sprawling package finances 11 departments and dozens of programs from the FBI to airport improvements to foreign aid. It covers the budget year that began Oct. 1, leaving majority Republicans well short of their goal of demonstrating efficiency by finishing Congress' routine spending work promptly.

GOP leaders planned to bring both chambers of Congress back to work the week of Dec. 8. But it was possible final votes might not occur until January — the start of a year featuring presidential and congressional elections.

The bill has something that appeals to almost every member of Congress, such as money for popular programs like schools, veterans health care and projects for lawmakers' districts. But Democrats and some Republicans were irked over the White House's unyielding stance on several 11th-hour disputes.

Limits on how large television networks can grow were raised even though lawmakers had agreed last week not to do that. The administration — which had threatened vetoes on at least three issues — also prevailed in fights on overtime pay, federally financed private school vouchers for District of Columbia students, food labels, gun background checks and other issues.

"My way or the highway is the president's mantra," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. "He expects the Congress to rubber stamp his budget."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who sometimes got upset with the White House during weeks of bargaining, told reporters that because of the administration-engineered changes, he feared the bill might not pass when votes finally occur — particularly if opponents use procedural delays that take 60 votes to halt. He said as a "last gasp," negotiators might even have to resume bargaining.

Under the measure, the Education Department would get $56 billion, which is $2.9 billion — or 5 percent — more than last year's total. Also included is $2.4 billion as a first step in President Bush's five-year initiative against AIDS in poor nations; $33.8 billion for highway construction, $4.5 billion over Mr. Bush's request; and $28.6 billion for veterans' health care, $1.6 billion above Mr. Bush's plan.

Congress and the president already have enacted legislation temporarily financing agencies through January.

The bill's $373 billion price tag is money Congress must approve each year. It includes money collected from special taxes for highway, mass transit and aviation projects. Overall, it covers $820 billion in total spending — mostly for programs that automatically spend their funds without congressional decisions needed.

An earlier estimate of $390 billion included $17 billion for civil service retirement benefits and some other areas where spending is automatic.

The measure has increases for Mr. Bush's plan to aid countries embracing democratic reforms and for helping states update local election systems.

In the last hours before the bill was approved, GOP bargainers accepted language sought by the National Rifle Association to shorten to 24 hours the time the government keeps background check records on gun buyers. The period is now 90 days.

The bill would let networks own television stations viewed by up to 39 percent of Americans, up from the current 35 percent but below the 45 percent ceiling the administration wanted. This will help Viacom Inc., which owns CBS (and CBSNews.com) and UPN, and News Corp., owner of Fox, which both exceed the current 35 percent limit because of mergers and acquisitions.

The bill includes projects like $250,000 for Washington State University's beach watchers program, and $3 million for weather and ocean research at the University of Alaska.