WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) hopes Congress' long-awaited passage of a bill providing $373 billion for most federal agencies will help him set a conservative tone for this election year's budget fight.
Four months after the Oct. 1 start of the government's fiscal year, the Senate rolled over opposition Democrats and voted 65-28 Thursday for a package that finances programs from housing and job training to space and biomedical research. The House had approved the measure in December.
Bush said in a written statement that he will sign the legislation, and cast it as part of his forthcoming budget's theme of cutting federal deficits in half in five years. Last year's shortfall was a record $375 billion, and this year's is expected to be about $100 billion higher.
Combined with spending bills completed earlier, the measure allows Bush to assert that he has held annually approved expenditures to just 3 percent growth for this year — though it has eight months to go. The bill still made room for increases for education, aid to countries adopting democratic practices, the FBI and veterans health care.
"I will continue to work with the Congress to focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending, and be wise with the people's money," Bush said.
The president also appealed to the GOP's business and conservative constituencies with some of the policy decisions the bill would make.
It would let companies pay overtime to fewer white collar employees and own more television stations, postpone required country of origin labels on many foods, start federally financed school vouchers in Washington, and force the government to quickly dispose of records on gun buyers.
The bill covers 11 Cabinet departments and scores of other agencies, plus foreign aid and the District of Columbia government, by combining seven spending bills usually passed separately. Six other spending measures, including those covering the Pentagon (search) and Department of Homeland Security (search), were already enacted.
The legislation will also let members of Congress get 2.2 percent pay raises over last year's salary of $154,700. Federal workers will get 4.1 percent increases.
As Bush prepares to rev up his own re-election campaign, his aides are mindful of not disenchanting the GOP's core conservative voters. But he also faces countervailing pressures to avoid painful cuts in popular programs that would dismay moderates.
Bush plans to send lawmakers a $2.3 trillion budget for 2005 on Feb. 2.
In his State of the Union address Monday, Bush said he would propose holding annually approved spending to growth of less than 4 percent. Of that, White House chief of staff Andrew Card told NBC News this week that Bush will propose limiting spending for nondefense, nondomestic security programs to less than 1 percent.
Even so, Bush has been taking steady fire from conservatives in and out of Congress for burgeoning deficits and overall federal spending that has grown by 23.7 percent over his three years in office.
They also are angry about the 7,932 home-district projects stuffed into the bill approved Thursday, at a cost of $10.7 billion, according to the conservative Taxpayers for Common Sense.
These included $500,000 for a pedestrian overpass in downtown Las Vegas, won by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and $10 million for a museum in Anchorage, represented by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
"It exemplifies everything that is wrong" with the way Congress makes spending decisions, said conservative Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "Lawmakers have a responsibility to change this system as we begin work on next year's budget soon."
The Senate approved the bill Thursday after voting 61-32 — one vote more than needed — to halt Democratic stalling tactics. Many of them reversed earlier votes to block the measure after concluding the White House and GOP leaders would not relent and make changes they wanted on overtime, labeling and other matters.
"There's a lot in this bill obviously that's very beneficial to the people in this country and my state as well," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who voted Tuesday to delay the legislation but switched on Thursday.