US lawmakers move to curb spending

US BUDGET: Concern over the deficit was apparent and even the president's initiatives did not escape cuts as Republicans moved to heed his demands to control spending


Mon, Nov 22, 2004 - Page 7

Republicans whisked a US$388 billion spending bill through Congress on Saturday, a mammoth measure that underscores the dominance of deficit politics by curbing dollars for everything from education to environmental cleanups.

The House approved the measure by a bipartisan 344-51 margin, while Senate passage was by 65-30.

Senate approval took longer because of disputes over provisions dealing with abortions and members of Congress' access to income tax returns. Leaders agreed to not send the spending package to President George W. Bush for his signature until the tax returns issue is resolved in a separate bill, expected to be passed by the House on Wednesday.

From its tight domestic spending to the Democratic-backed provisions on overtime and other issues that were dropped, the bill is a monument to the Republican's raw power controlling the White House and Congress. An imposing monument, too: The bill and explanatory report, completed near midnight Friday, were about 35.6cm tall, leaving many lawmakers baffled about its precise contents.

"I'm very proud of the fact that we held the line and made Congress make choices and set priorities, because it follows our philosophy," Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, said in House debate.

nuclear rejection

Even Bush's initiatives were not immune to cuts as the bill's Republican chief authors heeded his demands to control spending. His request for development of new nuclear weapons was rejected; his budget for the AmeriCorps volunteer program was sliced by 12 percent; and the US$2.5 billion he wanted to aid countries adopting democratic practices was slashed by US$1 billion.

Passage crowned the lame-duck session of Congress, which began Tuesday. Lawmakers began leaving town for the year Saturday night, though it was unclear whether efforts to pass a bill reorganizing US intelligence agencies or other business might bring them back sooner.

Also enacted last week was an US$800 billion increase in the government's borrowing limit. The measure was yet another testament to record annual deficits, which reached US$413 billion last year and are expected to climb indefinitely.

While the spending bill was one of the most austere in years, it had something for virtually every lawmaker, including mountains of home-district projects. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a bipartisan group favoring less federal spending, said it found 11,772 projects worth US$15.8 billion.

Despite complaints the bill was too stingy, most Democrats supported it. They helped write it and included many projects for themselves. They knew the alternative -- holding spending to last year's levels -- would be US$4 billion tighter.

Representative David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, said the bill "falls so far from meeting our investment obligations for the future that it could only be brought to the floor by the majority party after the election."

The measure was a compendium of nine bills that Republicans found too contentious to complete before the Nov. 2 elections. The legislation covers almost every domestic agency and department, plus foreign aid.

The FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission and NASA got healthy increases. But education grew by less than 2 percent. The Environmental Protection Agency grew by 3.5 percent.

Overall, the nine bills the measure combined were just 2 percent larger than last year's versions. When foreign aid and defense spending are omitted, the remaining domestic programs grew by around 1 percent.

To stay within the spending constraints Bush demanded, all programs in the bill eventually will be cut by at least 0.8 percent.

military assistance

Reflecting new US strategic priorities, the bill for the first time contains US$300 million in military assistance for Pakistan designed to bolster capabilities of the country's armed forces that help the US hunt down suspected Al-Qaeda members along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The program is seen as a reward to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is risking domestic tensions by siding with the administration of President George W. Bush in its worldwide campaign against Islamic militants.

The budget also contains US$400 million for training and equipping the new Afghan national army, a US$350 million increase of the past year.

Israel, the leading US Middle Eastern ally, got a US$73 million increase in its military aid program, to a total of US$2.2 billion. In addition, the Jewish state will receive US$360 million in economic assistance.

Egypt is being offered US$1.3 billion for its military and US$535 million for its economic needs.

Fulfilling a US commitment to international anti-AIDS programs, lawmakers allocated US$2.3 billion to combat the global AIDS pandemic as well as tuberculosis and malaria, a US$690 million increase over fiscal 2004.

The Andean Counterdrug Initiative received US$731 million, but Bush's request for other anti-drug programs was cut by US$30 million, to a total of US$329 million.