- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003


Bargainers tying down the last details of a mammoth $390 billion spending bill agreed to block labels identifying which country food products come from for the next two years, lawmakers and aides said yesterday.

They also hammered out a compromise that could let California — but no other state — impose air pollution requirements on lawn mowers and other small engines that are tougher than federal standards.

The agreements, struck privately in back-room discussions all over the Capitol, came as congressional leaders pushed to finish spending work that has been overdue since Oct. 1, when the new budget year began.

Lawmakers have finished work on only six of the 13 annual spending bills that keep the government operating. With Republicans controlling the House, Senate and White House, they had hoped to complete their work sooner in a show of efficiency, but bogged down over spending and policy fights.

The huge bill combines the seven remaining measures, and its price tag is more than one-sixth of the entire federal budget. It will finance 11 cabinet-level departments and scores of other agencies, ranging from the Justice Department to highway construction, from foreign aid to NASA.

Lawmakers and White House officials have worked out most of their disputes.

The two-year delay on country-of-origin food labels will apply to meats, produce and farm-raised fish — said to be a victory for Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican, whose state has a major catfish farming industry. Exempted would be wild fish — a boon for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, where salmon are a major catch.

The new labels were imposed by the 2002 farm bill. The House had voted last summer to block the labeling requirements from taking effect. But the Senate, led by some Western lawmakers, voted to keep the labels on track.

There was also a deal reached between Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, over small engine pollution.

Mr. Bond’s state is home to some production facilities of the Briggs & Stratton Corp., the country’s leading maker of small engines. He said the California requirements — because of the state’s large population — would cost U.S. jobs because the company would have to move production overseas.

Earlier, Mr. Bond had won Senate approval of a provision forbidding California from imposing stricter pollution standards than the federal government’s.

But Mrs. Feinstein was battling him because she said the small engines are a significant factor in California’s air pollution problem, which could cause it to be penalized by losing federal highway aid. Lobbying on her side was California’s new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Under their compromise, California may impose its own standards. But its rules must be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which will have to consider “safety factors.” Mr. Bond said the cleaner engines are fire hazards, which Mrs. Feinstein says is overstated.

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