- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003


Despite an eleventh-hour deal with the Bush administration to let networks own more television stations, Congress seems unlikely to complete an end-of-session $390 billion spending package until January.

Republican leaders wanted the massive legislation — covering more than one-sixth of the federal budget — whipped into final form yesterday. The House was planning to approve the measure when it returns from a Thanksgiving break next month.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, was hoping his chamber would approve it yesterday and adjourn for the year. But Democrats said they wouldn’t agree to a Senate vote until Congress returns for its new session in January, citing unhappiness with deals Republicans had struck with the White House on television-station ownership, new overtime-pay rules and other issues.

“We have so many problems” with items in the bill included to satisfy the administration, said the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. “Go down 16 blocks from here and tell them to leave us alone,” he said, referring to the White House.

In another late deal, Republican leaders agreed to include a provision sought by the National Rifle Association shortening to 24 hours, from the current 90 days, the period for which the government keeps records of firearm purchases.

The long-overdue measure combines the final seven spending bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1. It covers 10 of the 14 departments and scores of lesser agencies from the Legal Services Corp. to the Selective Service System. It also provides money for hundreds of projects in lawmakers’ home districts.

Congress and President Bush already enacted legislation to temporarily finance agencies through January.

The White House had issued veto threats on several issues covered by the sprawling spending bill, including new administration overtime rules and creating school vouchers in the District.

Until Monday, the media-ownership question was the only one on which lawmakers had defied the administration. They had decided last week to include a provision blocking any expansion of the current cap on companies owning stations watched by more than 35 percent of the country’s viewers.

The Federal Communications Commission voted this summer to raise that bar to 45 percent. But bowing to White House pressure Monday, top lawmakers decided to include a provision letting companies own stations watched by up to 39 percent of the nation’s viewers, congressional aides said.

Viacom Inc., which owns CBS and UPN, and News Corp., owner of Fox, exceed the current 35 percent limit because of mergers and acquisitions. But they would be within the new limit.

In another win for Mr. Bush, there was an agreement to let him proceed with much of his plan to give private companies work now performed by some federal workers. In giving tasks to the private sector, the administration would have to just consider whether substantial savings would result, but wouldn’t be required to do so as lawmakers preferred.

Final details of the bill were withheld and were subject to eleventh-hour changes. But congressional aides and preliminary documents said the measure was likely to include:

• $10.1 billion for state grants for education for the disabled, $1.3 billion more than last year, as well as $12.4 billion to aid low-income school districts, $728 million more than last year.

• $4.6 billion for the FBI, $423 million more than 2003.

• Nearly $1.3 billion for hazardous-waste cleanups under the Superfund program, about the same as last year.

• $1.9 billion for heating and cooling aid for the poor, about $200 million more than last year.

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