- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

The massive federal spending bill left over from last year is in danger of being blocked by Democrats in the Senate today, and Republican leaders have been scrambling to persuade enough senators to support it.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said Friday there is “strong support” among Democrats to block the bill in a procedural vote scheduled for this afternoon. Democrats will officially decide in their caucus meeting today whether or not they will do so.

“We don’t want to kill the bill, but we do want to fix it,” said Mr. Daschle of South Dakota.

Sixty votes are needed to cut off debate and force a final vote on the measure, which combines seven leftover 2004 spending bills, and provides several federal agencies with a total of $820 billion, including $328 billion in discretionary funding.

The measure covers everything from global AIDS prevention to veterans’ care. The House approved the bill in December but Senate Democrats objected and the Senate was unable to act before Congress adjourned for the year.

If today’s procedural vote is successful, the bill is expected to subsequently be approved. If it fails, it is not clear what leaders will do.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, sent a letter to senators last week, urging them to support today’s procedural vote.

Mr. Frist warned that if the bill is blocked, the only option will be to adopt a continuing resolution extending current funding levels through the rest of 2004. This would mean many federal agencies would be denied the bill’s key 2004 funding increases for things like veterans’ care, fighting domestic terrorism and dealing with mad cow disease.

He also cited the bill’s 4.1 percent federal pay raise, $50 million to deal with the flu outbreak and other provisions.

In a letter to Mr. Frist, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia — the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee — said the bill could easily be fixed and, “the improved legislation could pass Congress with broad bipartisan support.”

Among other things, Democrats want the bill to require country-of-origin labeling on certain food products. They also object to bill provisions on media-ownership rules, and an overtime-pay provision they say would hurt millions of American workers.

But House Republican leaders warned last week that changing the bill and sending the new version back to the House is not an option.

“There are two options — the fiscally responsible omnibus that has already passed the House or a bare-bones continuing resolution through the end of the year that spends at last year’s levels,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last month he did not yet have the votes to get the bill through the Senate, the Associated Press reported. He also recently sent a letter reminding members of the various projects for their home states that are included in the bill.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Stevens on Friday would not predict what would happen in today’s vote or what leaders would do if it failed.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, predicted “most Republicans and some Democrats” would support the procedural vote. “The question is, will that be enough,” he said, referring to the 60-vote threshold. “It’s going to be close.”

Mr. Lott said he is not happy with the bill but finally told Republican leaders last week that he will support it. He objects to the measure’s high cost and the process of combining all of the bills. He said a few Republicans will likely vote against it.

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