WASHINGTON – 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 Saturday.
They also hammered out a compromise that could let California — but no other states — impose air pollution requirements on lawnmowers and other small engines that are tougher than federal standards.
The agreements, struck privately in back-room discussions all over the Capitol, came amid a push by congressional leaders 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 totals 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 (search).
Lawmakers and White House officials have worked out most of their disputes.
Aides said they were still trying to decide how to pay for more than $4 billion added to the bill. That money is for Pell grants (search) for low-income college students and other education programs; veterans' health care; modernized election equipment for state and local governments; and aid to countries that embrace democratic reforms.
The two-year delay on country-of-origin food labels will apply to meats, produce and farm-raised fish. The fish delay was a victory for Sen. Thad Cochran (search), R-Miss., whose state has a major catfish farming industry. The labeling would begin, however, for wild fish — a boon for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (search), R-Alaska, where salmon are a major catch.
The delay represented a victory for the Bush administration, grocery stores, meat packers and processors. They said complying with the regulations would cost the food industry billions of dollars — which would be passed to consumers as higher prices.
The new labels were imposed by the 2002 farm bill. The House had voted last summer to block the labeling requirements from taking effect, which they were to do by September 2004. But the Senate, led by some Western lawmakers, voted to keep the labels on track.
Word of the agreement, which will be included in spending bill, brought criticism from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D. He noted that the two-year delay would expire after the next election.
"The Bush administration wants to kill" the labeling law, Daschle said. "They just don't want to do it before the presidential election because they know the majority of people in our nation want labeling."
There was also a deal reached between Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Kit Bond, R-Mo., over small engine pollution.
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, Bond had won Senate approval of a provision forbidding California from imposing stricter pollution standards than the federal government's.
But Feinstein was battling him because the small engines are a significant factor in the state's air pollution problem, which could cause it to be penalized by losing federal highway aid. Lobbying on her side was her state's new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Under their compromise, California can impose its own standards. But its rules must be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which will have to consider "safety factors." Bond says the cleaner engines are fire hazards, which Feinstein says is overstated.
In describing the deal, Feinstein said Bond's initial plan "would have seriously crippled California's efforts to reduce dangerous and costly emissions."
But Bond told reporters, "We finally won the battle to keep California from imposing, I think, its very risky regulations."
The Senate might vote on the spending bill as early as next week, but the House will not conduct votes until early December. To buy time, Congress and Bush have already enacted a bill temporarily financing federal agencies through January.
— Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the Senate will not vote this year on a long-stalled bill creating a fund for victims of asbestos-caused diseases. Frist said the Senate would begin considering the bill by next March.
— Frist said he may add language temporarily extending a ban on taxing Internet access to the spending bill.
— Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he would block the Senate from considering a bill renewing several expiring taxes unless it also extends unemployment benefits due to run out in January.