Congress hopes for vote on $388B bill today

By ALAN FRAM

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – White House and congressional bargainers sorted through a final pile of disputes Friday on an overdue $388 billion spending bill that would slice President Bush's priorities and curb a wide swath of programs.

Leaders were hoping the House and Senate would approve the mammoth measure by Saturday and edge Congress toward the end of its weeklong postelection session. One problem delaying debate was staunch White House opposition to provisions that would limit Bush's plan to let private firms compete for some civil servants' jobs.

From the bill's modest education increases to its near-halving of Bush's foreign aid request for countries that embrace democratic change, the package is a vivid illustration of how the politics of surging deficits has crimped domestic programs. To the dismay of outnumbered Democrats and many Republicans, the measure complied with overall spending limits Bush demanded partly by trimming every program by about 0.75 percent.

“Everybody took hits,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., a chief author of the measure. “There will be members who aren't totally satisfied, but we we're committed to stay within the budget number.”

Overall, the dozen Cabinet departments and scores of agencies covered would get 2 percent more than last year for domestic and foreign aid programs. The Defense and Homeland Security departments received 7.4 percent boosts in earlier bills, not counting the tens of billions the Pentagon got for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Even so, aides said the measure was stocked with thousands of economic development, water and other projects for lawmakers' home districts. Young said he and other leaders rejected another $20 billion in colleagues' spending requests.

Capping weeks of lobbying, the bill also made winners and losers of many segments of the business community. Satellite television companies will be allowed to beam high definition network signals to some remote customers, and the high technology industry won 20,000 additional visas for skilled foreign workers.

The nation's ailing airlines won a one-year extension of government-sponsored terror and war-risk insurance but lost an appeal for waiver of the federal tax they pay on aircraft fuel. Also failing were efforts to extend some federal milk subsidies and repeal country-of-origin labels for many foods.

Congress prepared to debate the bill hours after Bush signed an $800 billion increase in the federal borrowing debt limit, another testament to the feeble condition of the government's books.

The measure, which narrowly cleared Congress this week, paves the way for the third major borrowing increase since Bush took office. It pushed the debt ceiling to $8.18 trillion, or two-thirds the value of all the shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

Among their final tasks of the year, lawmakers sent Bush a bill Friday that would bar state and local governments from taxing people's Internet connections for the next three years. The House also approved a measure aimed at providing stricter enforcement of standards for disabled students.

Legislators also were making a last-ditch effort to salvage a bill overhauling the country's intelligence agencies, as the Sept. 11 commission proposed.

The spending bill was an amalgam of nine unfinished spending measures Congress was supposed to have had finished when the government's budget year started Oct. 1. Four others have been enacted.

Though toeing the spending line Bush drew, lawmakers put their own stamp on the bill by financing many individual programs to their liking.

The measure would provide $1.5 billion for Bush's Millennium Challenge program for nations making free-market and democratic changes, $1 billion less than Bush wanted. There is $34.7 billion for highway building, $1.1 billion more than he proposed.

Despite a push by the president and the first lady, Laura Bush, cultural programs like the National Endowment for the Arts would get only token increases.

National parkland acquisition would get about $170 million, marking a pronounced decrease since Bush took office. His Futuregen program to promote clean-burning power plants would get about $18 million, 8 percent of his request.

There is $404 billion to help refugees in Sudan's violent Darfur region, on top of $95 million already approved this year. Afghanistan would get $980 million for reconstruction and rebuilding its national army.

Money to combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa and other poor nations would reach $2.9 billion, $100 million more than Bush requested. About $438 million of that would go to the global AIDS fund overseen by the United Nations, hundreds of millions less than some outside groups wanted.