House Passes $142.5B Spending Bill

With the new budget year only weeks away, the House has passed a $142.5 billion spending bill (search) that funds some 500 education, health and job training programs.

The legislation, said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, head of the subcommittee in charge of the bill, "affects the lives in one way or another of every American."

It passed easily Thursday, on a 388-13 vote, but Democrats said the 2 percent boost over current-year spending was insufficient, and blamed administration tax cuts (search) for pressures to hold down spending on many popular health and education programs.

The bill, still to be considered by the Senate, provides $63 billion for Health and Human Services programs, up $1 billion from this year, and $58 billion for the Education Department, up $2 billion.

The House has now approved 11 of the 13 spending bills that must be passed for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, but the Senate has only completed one — a $417 billion defense bill. In recent years Congress has rarely completed its budget work by Oct. 1, and this year it's increasingly possible that lawmakers will have to return after the November elections to finish their legislating.

Also on Thursday a Senate panel challenged President Bush on two fronts, voting to block his administration's efforts to restrict travel to Cuba (search) and parcel out thousands of federal jobs to private contractors.

In both cases, some Republicans on the GOP-run panel backed Democrats in a demonstration of how sensitive some issues can be in the weeks before the Nov. 2 elections.

The showdowns came as a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee used a voice vote to approve a $90.6 billion bill for operating the Treasury and Transportation departments next year. The same bill has $1.2 billion to subsidize the financially struggling Amtrak national passenger railroad, $300 million more than Bush requested.

Meanwhile, the full Senate stood by Bush and fended off repeated efforts by Democrats to add money for emergency responders and other domestic security efforts to a bill providing $32 billion for the Homeland Security Department next year. Final Senate passage is expected next week.

An amendment by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., adding $2 billion for emergency workers, railroads and other security efforts was rejected 51-43. An effort by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., to add $15.8 billion for emergency responders lost 53-41, and a proposal by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to triple spending for port security to $450 million lost 49-45.

At the Senate subcommittee, chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., accepted an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that would block existing curbs on travel by most Americans to the communist island nation of Cuba.

Dorgan said the government is devoting too much effort to a trade embargo that, he said, has not affected Fidel Castro's rule.

"What is happening makes no sense at all," Dorgan said.

"This will again draw a strenuous veto threat from the president," Shelby said, recalling how Bush has responded to similar proposals in recent years.

By 9-6, the panel also approved an amendment by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., thwarting Bush from replacing some federal workers with private contractors. Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., facing re-election this year in labor states, voted for the proposal.