WASHINGTON – Despite a four-month delay, the Senate finally managed to pass the $373 billion omnibus bill for fiscal year 2004, a package that combined seven appropriations measures and included many big wins for the White House and home-state projects.
Senators passed the measure 65-28 one month after the House had completed its final votes on the package. The bill finances agriculture, veterans and most other domestic programs for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
President Bush expressed his approval over the Senate's actions.
"I am pleased that the Senate has passed the omnibus budget bill, which fulfills important commitments like AIDS relief, education and D.C. school choice, veterans health care, law enforcement, and other priorities," the president said in a written statement. "I will continue to work with the Congress to focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending, and be wise with the people's money. I look forward to signing this bill into law."
On Tuesday, Democrats had blocked a vote on final passage because they were angry about the inclusion of Bush administration policies on overtime pay (search), media ownership and country-of-origin food labeling (search). The Senate voted 48-45 to end debate, but 60 votes are needed for cloture that would allow a final vote on passage.
"In the dark of night, behind closed doors, the White House filled this conference report with favors for big corporations. Everywhere you look, you find the interests of corporate America coming first and the needs of working Americans coming in last," Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said Wednesday, referring to the disputed policies included in the final version.
But with the White House and GOP leaders adamant about not changing the measure, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., said on Wednesday that Democrats would not hold up the bill any longer, and promised to raise his concerns on overtime pay, food labeling, and other issues in future legislation. He said he would not rule out using the filibuster for such measures.
On Thursday, Democrats agreed to end debate — a 61-32 vote — ceding the way for a final vote.
"It is time to move on," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn. "The country demands that we complete action on this bill."
The final package includes thousands of home-state projects and spending boosts for popular programs. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Appropriations Committee chairman, used the projects as incentives to convince lawmakers to approve final passage.
The final measure has 7,932 so-called earmarks — for local items like museum upgrades and agricultural research — costing $10.7 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense (search), a group that pushes for lower spending.
Last year's spending bill also arrived late, the result of internal GOP disagreements over spending and policy issues.
Republicans had vowed to finish the measure on schedule to underscore their ability to run the government. But not only did Republicans fail to get the bill done in time, conservatives on the House side said they were not happy with the extras included in the package.
"We have a message that's coming from our base and the message is being heard from conservatives and moderates alike ... and that's to decide what the Republican Party stands for," said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., who added that increased spending in this year's budget was far too costly.
"The omnibus bill is obscene. It gives opportunities for folks to load it up with pork. I find that very offensive," Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado told Fox News. "We need to get real, we need to have the political will and the discipline to cut spending."
But fellow Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona said that not all spending projects are mere folly.
"I think there will be spending, the question is, how do you spend wisely. I think the case could be made in the state of Arizona, where we have had a 40 percent increase in population over the last decade ... there are some concerns to infrastructure where money can be spent wisely," Hayworth said.
Sixteen Democrats and 45 Republicans voted Thursday to end debate in the Senate, including 11 Democrats and two Republicans who voted the other way on Tuesday, plus two other Democrats who missed Tuesday's vote. Two Republicans who voted Tuesday to end debate were absent Thursday.
One of the vote switchers, Sen. Mary Landrieu (search), D-La., said while Tuesday's vote gave Democrats the chance to highlight "egregious provisions" in the measure, "I think the weight falls more heavily on getting the bill finished and getting the money out there."
The bill allows the administration to proceed with new rules that would let companies pay overtime to fewer white collar workers and allow media conglomerates to own more television stations.
It would also postpone for two years a requirement that meat and many other foods sold in stores be labeled with information identifying the origin of the products. Many Democrats hoped they had gained leverage on the issue of labeling after last month's discovery that a Washington state cow had mad cow disease (search). But the White House and House GOP leaders refused to budge.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (search), D-Mass., described the GOP's attitude on the bill as one of "take it or leave it."
"This is one senator who's going to leave it because of what it will do to working families and women and veterans of this country."
Had Democrats succeeded in blocking the measure, Republican leaders were threatening to replace it with a bare-bones bill that would have financed most of government at last year's levels and without the special projects — about $6 billion less than the stalled legislation.
That would have meant dramatically less money for combating AIDS in Africa, the FBI and other anti-terrorism efforts, and many other programs. It was unclear whether GOP leaders would have ever gained sufficient votes to push such a bill through Congress.
Policy triumphs for Bush in the bill include eased requirements for federal gun records, the nation's first federally financed school vouchers, and language letting him contract out more government work.
The bill also has money for Bush priorities such as fighting AIDS, aid for countries instituting democratic reforms, the AmeriCorps national service program and funds for disabled students.
It will also let Bush claim that he held expenditures in the 13 spending bills to just a 3 percent increase this year — though billions in new expenses for war or other efforts could come in the next few months.
The package wraps seven spending bills into one, covering 11 Cabinet departments and scores of other agencies, plus foreign aid and the District of Columbia government. Six other spending measures — covering the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security and several other agencies — had already been enacted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.