- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

The House passed the massive omnibus spending bill yesterday to fund about half of the U.S. government for fiscal year 2004, including a school voucher program for the District of Columbia.

The bill goes back to the Senate for final approval, but if it becomes law, it will mark a 3 percent increase in discretionary spending from 2003 to 2004, the lowest increase in the nine years Republicans have held the majority in the House.

“For a year that began with a struggling economy and pressing needs at home and abroad, that we have held the growth of discretionary spending to 3 percent is a titanic achievement,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, who said “spending has been out of control for a while.”

In 2003, total discretionary spending was $849 billion. Once signed into law, the omnibus bill will bring total discretionary spending for 2004 to $875 billion, including the $87.5 billion supplemental bill passed last month to fund the global war on terror and rebuild Iraq.

President Bush has called for quick action on the bill and Republican leaders are pushing for final passage in the Senate today, but one Democratic senator, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, has pledged to block it, meaning it probably will not pass until January.

The fiscal year began Oct. 1, and more than two months later Congress has passed only six of the 13 appropriations bills needed to fund government.

The omnibus measure rolled the other seven bills into a single bill, totaling $328 billion in discretionary spending and nearly another $500 billion in mandatory spending.

It passed the House 242-176, with 184 Republicans and 58 Democrats voting for it and 38 Republicans, 137 Democrats and the chamber’s lone independent opposing it.

The bill settles several thorny issues Congress fought over this year, including:

• Creating a voucher program for the District of Columbia, which will funnel $13 million into allowing public school students, particularly those in failing schools, to go to private schools.

• Enacting a compromise on media-ownership rules that gives the administration less possibility of consolidation than it had wanted, but more than Congress first passed.

• Dropping congressional attempts to end the ban on travel to Cuba, and attempts to stop Labor Department rules that will allow companies to reclassify employees for purposes of overtime pay.

Democrats said those issues were too important for Congress to cave on.

“It’s ignored the will of the House on outsourcing, Cuba travel, drug reimportation, school vouchers on the District of Columbia,” said Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

Democratic leaders tried to force Republicans to add another extension of unemployment benefits onto the bill, but that move failed on several procedural votes.

“How can someone out of work be the victim of partisanship?” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat. Democrats argued that unemployment was still at 5.9 percent in November and that more than 2 million Americans have lost jobs during the Bush administration.

Republicans, though, said with the economy coming out of recession and the unemployment rate having fallen each month since the summer, another extension is not needed. They said states with particularly bad employment situations already have recourse for more aid.

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