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Congress OKs $368 billion bill for defense

Friday, September 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Congress unanimously approved a compromise $368 billion defense bill for next year, underscoring that despite differences over President Bush's Iraq policies, there is a bipartisan consensus on the military's role in the fight against global terrorism.

The Senate gave the measure final approval 95-0, a day after the House passed the measure on a 407-15 vote.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said the "peace budget on defense" -- it does not include money for Iraq -- was a "demonstration of our support, of Congress' support, of our men and women in uniform."

The House and Senate also voted to keep federal agencies open next month, despite the failure of the Republican-run Congress to finish most of its routine spending bills on time.

With neither party interested in a standoff that might have led to a government shutdown, the measure passed the House by 407-8. The Senate followed by voice vote.

Congress is supposed to complete its 13 annual bills financing agency budgets by the Oct. 1 start of the new federal budget year. That rarely happens, and this year Congress is likely to have sent only three of the bills to Bush on time.

GOP disputes

Last year, when none of the bills were finished by Oct. 1, the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled House blamed the Democratic-led Senate. But this year, despite GOP control of both houses of Congress and the White House, the work has been slowed by internal Republican disputes over spending levels and policy questions like concentration of media ownership.

"The Republican Party has all the marbles," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis. "They run the House, they run the Senate, they run the White House and on a good day they even run the Supreme Court."

Even so, with the public focused on the economy and U.S. operations in Iraq, Republicans seem likely to be only mildly embarrassed by their failure to complete their budget work on time. The only Republican who participated in the House's brief debate, House Appropriations Committee chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., conceded there is "considerable work to do still."

The House-passed bill would keep agencies running through Oct. 31, giving House-Senate bargainers more time to work.

It also contains several minor provisions, such as allowing a $550 million, 12-year loan to the Czech Republic for its purchase of 14 used F-16 aircraft. And it has an accounting gimmick allowing the expenditure of $2.2 billion more for federal education programs than congressional budget limits would have permitted.

The defense bill does not provide money for either the Iraq or Afghanistan campaigns, being considered separately.

It provides $98.5 billion for military personnel, with an average 4.1 percent pay raise. It includes $9.1 billion for a missile defense system, up $1.4 billion from this year, and $11.5 billion for shipbuilding, up $2.4 billion.

On Wednesday, Congress also sent Bush a $29.4 billion bill to finance a broad array of first responder, airport security and border protection programs next year. It is the first spending bill ever for the new Homeland Security Department and the first to have cleared Congress this year.

The Homeland Security bill, passed 417-8 in the House and by voice in the Senate, was $1 billion above what the president requested and includes some $4.2 billion for first-responder programs, $9 billion for border protection and $5.2 billion for the Transportation Security Agency and the federal air marshal program.

Bush said he looked forward to signing the bill. "To win the war on terrorism, we are staying on the offensive abroad and protecting Americans at home," he said in a statement. "These funds will help make Americans and their families even safer."

Despite the overwhelming vote, House Democrats complained that the administration was shortchanging domestic security while it was seeking $87 billion in emergency money for military and rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House and Senate also took care of their own on Wednesday, consecutively approving a $3.54 billion bill to run Congress and its related offices.

The $3.54 billion spending bill for the legislative branch, passed 371-56 in the House and by voice in the Senate, has $48 million for the Capitol Visitor's Center, a massive three-story underground project aimed at enhancing security and tourist facilities and due to be completed in 2005.

Attached to that bill is a $937 million emergency spending measure that provides $442 million for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief, $319 million for firefighting and $50 million for NASA's investigation of the Columbia shuttle disaster.


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