WASHINGTON – The Senate got down to business upon its return to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, but failed to end debate on a $373 billion omnibus spending bill for the 2004 fiscal year that has been delayed for months by partisan bickering.
Leaders of both parties, however, conceded that an attempt to stall the bill's passage with a filibuster would not last, and the bill could become law by next week. Supporters of the bill could only find 48 of the 60 votes needed to end debate. Forty-five lawmakers opposed ending debate.
The package includes seven of the 13 annual spending bills that were supposed to be ready on Oct. 1. The legislation was postponed over the decision by Senate GOP leaders to cut out some popular measures that had won support in both chambers. The House had already passed the omnibus package before breaking for the winter holidays.
Republicans said that the measures subject to dispute — specifically, the Bush administration's new rules on overtime pay guarantees (search) and the delay on the requirement that packages of meat products contain country-of-origin labeling (search) — would not stall the already-delayed spending measures for very long.
"We have a bill that’s unamenable," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said before the vote.
"We're not changing this bill, period," added Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
Frist said other opportunities would arise to address Democratic concerns, but failing to pass the bill would be a disservice to the American people because it contains funding for veterans health care, NIH and the global fight against AIDS, among other programs. The package also contains money for transportation, education, D.C. government and thousands of home-district projects.
Republicans had warned that failure to pass the package would mean returning with a package that had $6 billion of lawmakers' pet projects removed. Taxpayers for Common Sense (search) estimated that the current bill contains 7,932 home-district projects costing $10.7 billion
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who had been one of the most vocal supporters of new country-of-origin labeling, again emphasized the importance of it, but said he would not hold up the omnibus package because of it.
"Our desire is not to kill the bill but to give [Republicans] an opportunity to fix it. The omnibus will pass, fixed or not, before the [continuing resolution] runs out," said Daschle, who was joined by South Dakota ranchers in Washington on Tuesday.
Before Congress recessed for the holidays, it had extended a continuing resolution (search) to keep government operating at the previous year's levels until Jan. 31. The resolution will have to be renewed if Congress cannot complete an appropriations bill by then.
Asked whether Democrats would continue the filibuster after Tuesday's vote, Daschle said no, the issue could be addressed in other bills. However, if the labeling issue is overlooked again, Democrats may decide to hold up those other bills from passage.
Bush said he was disappointed with the Senate's further postponement of spending measures that should have long ago been completed.
Today, a minority in the Senate denied a vote on a spending bil that is four months overdue, and that fulfills important commitments," Bush said in a written statement. "This bill stays within the spending limits I proposed. And the Senate needs to pass it."
The issue of country-of-origin labeling has risen in interest among lawmakers since a Holstein cow in Washington state was diagnosed last month with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease (search). The House Committee on Agriculture is expected on Wednesday to take up the U.S. Department of Agriculture's response to the case, the first ever in the United States.
The cow originally came from Canada. On Monday, the Agriculture Department announced that it had identified 23 of the 81 cattle that had been in the shipment to the United States. No other cases of the disease have yet been discovered, but the administration has taken aggressive steps, including the slaughter of hundreds of Washington state cows, in order to increase confidence in U.S. beef.
Supporters of country-of-origin labeling say that the labels could have helped maintain consumer confidence in their products during the mad cow scare.
"Every American could perform a simple but significant act of patriotism whenever they visit the supermarket. But the administration and some congressional leaders have again done the bidding of the powerful meatpacking cartel and are trying to block this important effort to allow consumers a simple choice about the food they feed their families," Daschle said in an event last Friday with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in which the two offered a "prebuttal" to President Bush's State of the Union (search) address.
But opponents say the labels would not do anything to guarantee safe beef. Meatpackers have wanted to delay the labeling for two years to accommodate the extra costs that will be assumed because of the new packaging.
The new overtime rules would expand access to overtime pay for low-paid workers, but restrict it for white-collar employees. On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor held a hearing on the issue that included Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
While the current budget and future tax relief remains unsettled, Congress still has other work to do.
On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is to hear from nuclear experts for an update on the latest developments in North Korea. The Bush administration has been working with Chinese officials to get North Korea to return to six-way talks on the status of its nuclear weapons program.
Among the other events this week, a House Armed Services subcommittee is expected to receive testimony on reserve component health care.
"Democrats will keep fighting to ensure that this nation keeps faith with our service men and women, their families and our veterans, including ending the disabled veterans tax — for all disabled veterans. And we must change the Military Survivors' Benefit Plan, which unfairly penalizes the survivors, mostly widows, of our veterans," Pelosi said.
On Friday, the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee will be receiving written comments on legislation to streamline the student aid approval process.
On Wednesday, the full House is expected to deliberate over several less controversial measures, including resolutions addressing the benefits of mentoring and commending the successful landing of the Mars probe.
Fox News' Peter Brownfeld and Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.