Congress OKs $397 billion spending

Friday, February 14, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Congress overwhelmingly approved a vast $397.4 billion spending bill Thursday, a package pouring taxpayers' money into everything from poor school districts to a probe of the shuttle Columbia disaster to the National Cowgirl Museum in Texas.

By votes of 338-83 in the House and 76-20 in the Senate, lawmakers approved a package financing every agency but the Pentagon for the last two-thirds of the federal budget year. Its scope was underlined by its sheer size: The papers stacked more than 13 inches high, weighed 32 pounds and exceeded 3,000 pages, inviting opponents to use it as a prop to argue that few knew exactly what was in it.

Bush will sign the bill into law, said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan -- even though it would spend billions more than he initially sought.

In the last frantic days of House-Senate bargaining, a bill that already had something for almost everyone grew even sweeter. Lawmakers threw in $3.1 billion to help farmers and ranchers, including those hurt by drought and floods; $1.5 billion to help states revamp their election systems; $54 billion over 10 years to increase Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals; and $10 billion for added defense spending that Bush originally requested a year ago.

"This is now a must-pass bill," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla. "This is a national defense bill, it provides for the needs of our country and it employs some fiscal restraint."

The measure was opposed by an odd coalition: Some Democrats complaining it shortchanged education, domestic security and park lands, and conservative Republicans angry that it spent too much on lawmakers' projects critics dub pork.

"Rather than duct tape and plastic sheeting, I think our firemen would rather have more aid," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

"I ought to nominate some of my colleagues, both Democrat and Republican, for the hall of fame for pork," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "But I'm afraid that they would fund it."


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