- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004


This winter’s harsh flu outbreak is passing without the $50 million lawmakers promised for expanding vaccine production. Millions of federal workers are seeing slimmer-than-expected pay raises. Initiatives for fighting global AIDS, wildfires and terrorism have been threatened.

The reason: Congress is nearly four months late in finishing the government’s budget.

Most federal agencies are still operating at 2003 spending levels, depriving them of about $6 billion in increases slated under the 2004 spending plan. That’s not a lot when $373 billion is at stake, but it has put some projects on hold or in doubt.

On the first day of the new congressional session Tuesday, the Senate again failed to overcome Democratic-led resistance to the package combining seven still-unfinished spending bills — out of the 13 Congress must pass for the fiscal year starting last Oct. 1.

But at the same time, they said they would not try to delay it any more beyond next week after Republicans and the White House threatened to hold the 2003 spending levels in effect through September.

“The consequences of delay on this bill are real and the dangers are great,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, said last month in a futile attempt to end Democratic opposition.

Repercussions are already hitting close to home. Without a new budget, civil servants have received only a 2 percent pay raise this year, rather than the 4.1 percent in the legislation.

This winter’s flu outbreak could also pass before health officials can use $50 million set aside to diversify the manufacturing base for vaccines.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi said it “would be absolutely disastrous” if VA health care programs don’t get their $3.1 billion increase, to $28.6 billion, under the 2004 bill.

He said doctors at VA hospitals already are leaving at a rate of 1 percent a month and his department is having a hard time replacing them. Until the increase comes, veterans already waiting months for an appointment are at risk of facing longer delays, as well as slower responses to their disability claims.

It will even be harder to find space in VA cemeteries at a time when 1,800 veterans are dying every day, he said.

Among other consequences should the stalemate continue:

• The Food and Drug Administration says it would lose $30 million from a proposed $250 million prescription-drug user-fee program, requiring it to delay new hiring and other initiatives. A new fee program for renewing animal drugs would be postponed, and $42 million for a new FDA building would not be available.

• Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would miss out on $80 million in new funding to address food-safety concerns, such as mad cow disease.

• The FBI could lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars directed to hiring new agents and fighting terrorism.

• An extra $1 billion to help states modernize voting equipment before the 2004 elections wouldn’t be available.

• The first year of President Bush’s five-year, $15 billion plan to combat global AIDS would be underfunded by about $1 billion.

• $1 billion for the new Millennium Challenge Account, the president’s initiative to direct aid to those countries promoting democracy and economic reforms, would be put on hold.

• AmeriCorps would have to delay enrolling tens of thousands of new volunteers, thwarting Mr. Bush’s goal of reaching 75,000.

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