House OKs $90 billion for veterans, $984 million for disaster a

Saturday, July 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The House approved a $90 billion measure for veterans, housing and other programs for next year on Friday after Republican leaders overcame complaints that the measure would shortchange veterans' health care.

The chamber also voted 352-60 to approve a separate bill providing $984 million in immediate relief for victims of natural disasters. House members then left town, finished with their legislative work until September.

That measure lacked $100 million for AmeriCorps, which supporters of the national service program said would force the agency to shed thousands of its volunteers in hundreds of community projects nationwide.

The House approved the $90 billion bill for veterans, environment, housing and science by a bipartisan 316-109 vote.

The "yes" tally was fed by the measure's pile of more than 1,000 home-district projects, including $300,000 to renovate the Strand Theatre in Moundsville, W.Va., and $4.5 million for a science center at St. Bonaventure University in New York. Amid unrest over the veterans money, top House Republicans reminded lawmakers about their projects as they nailed down the votes for final passage, said several legislators on condition of anonymity.

Backed by veterans groups, a phalanx of lawmakers of both parties tried to derail the bill, which contains $25.7 billion in new spending for veterans' health care.

That was the same that President Bush had proposed and $1.3 billion over this year's total. But critics said it was $1.8 billion below what the GOP-led Congress had promised in its nonbinding budget in April, and would leave thousands of veterans waiting six months or longer for treatment and beds.

"You can get awfully sick and awfully diseased waiting that long to get health care," said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, a leader of the opposition.

Eager to approve one of the largest of the year's spending bills before the summer break, senior Republicans worked behind the scenes to make sure they would prevail. To help their cause, they indicated that the veterans' funds could grow before the bill becomes law.

"This has been the No. 1 priority" of the subcommittee that wrote the bill," said that panel's chairman, Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y. "This is not the end of the process."

The Senate, which begins its break next Friday, is not expected to write its version of the bill until fall.

The legislation included modest increases for NASA, the National Science Foundation and housing, and a bit less than this year for the Environmental Protection Agency. Democrats were most unhappy over its funds for hazardous waste removal and clean water projects, and cuts in the demolition of decaying public housing.

During debate, the House approved amendments that would prevent the EPA from using industry research on pesticides that was conducted on humans, increase a $12 billion voucher program for low-income renters by $150 million and add enforcement officer slots that the bill would have eliminated.

The bill also had $480 million for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps.

That was less than Bush sought but still enough to let the agency retain 55,000 volunteers for the government budget that starts on Oct. 1, 5,000 over this year.

But that wasn't satisfying AmeriCorps supporters, who said the agency will have to drop 20,000 of its 50,000 slots if an infusion of funds does not arrive before Congress' break. The program's young volunteers staff hundreds of local tutoring, home-building and other programs.

The Senate's version of the natural disaster bill included an immediate $100 million for AmeriCorps, but the House's $984 million measure lacked those funds. It also lacked money Bush had requested for battling Western wildfires.

"It's time for a tirade," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, when he heard the House bill lacked firefighting and AmeriCorps funds.

Even so, the House's departure -- and projections that federal funds for helping individuals and communities battered by disasters would run out next month -- will pressure the Senate to approve the emergency bill next week.

Bush had requested $1.9 billion for this year for disasters, wildfires and NASA's costs for investigating the shuttle Columbia's disintegration. The House and Senate had been working on separate $2 billion versions of the legislation.

But pressured by record federal deficits and the costs of tax cuts and eager to leave town, the House GOP leadership produced a bill half that size and dropped controversial items -- especially money for AmeriCorps, which even supporters acknowledge has been badly run.

Before passage, the chamber voted 300-111 to reject a conservative effort led by Rep. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., to cut other federal programs to cover the bill's $984 million costs.

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