WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday passed a $464 billion spending bill that closes out last year's unfinished budget business while providing clues about how the new Democratic Congress and President Bush will do business.
The bill, passed 81-15, sticks to Bush's overall budget caps but finds numerous ways around them to add to programs favored by lawmakers, such as education, health care, food inspection and mine safety.
The mammoth bill pulls together nine unfinished spending bills funding foreign aid and every domestic agency budget except the Homeland Security Department.
The bill provides small but welcome funding increases to agencies that have been limping along at or below last year's funding levels in the four months since the budget year started Oct. 1. Without the measure, food inspectors, FBI agents and air traffic controllers faced furloughs, while more than 200,000 low-income people could have lost housing subsidies.
Democrats put off some costs, chiefly $3 billion to implement a 2005 round of military base closings, for a $100-billion-plus war funding bill to be debated next month.
The measure now heads to Bush, who has signaled he will sign it despite unease over the temporary cuts to the base closing program. The money would help pay for the redeployment of 12,000 troops stationed in Germany and South Korea to domestic bases and to prepare closed bases for economic development projects and other uses.
The base-closing cuts amount to a shift from the Pentagon budget to domestic accounts, and they are a sign of things to come as Democrats move ahead on the budget front.
Next up is Bush's $100 billion Iraq and Afghanistan war funding request, which is widely expected to draw Democratic extras such as $4 billion or so in farm disaster aid when the appropriations committees debate it next month. The White House wants to keep the Iraq funding bill as free as possible from such add-ons, but it is likely to have to accept some Democratic priorities as the price of getting the bill to his desk.
Then will come the fiscal 2008 appropriations cycle, during which Democrats are certain to transfer some of the proposed $50 billion-plus increase for the Pentagon budget — not including war costs — to domestic programs, which are almost frozen under Bush's budget.
The bill passed Wednesday clears away budget work that should have been completed months ago but was delayed because of election-year pressures. The Democratic chairmen of the appropriations committees led House-Senate negotiations over the first several weeks of the year to produce the bill, which freezes most accounts at 2006 levels while awarding exceptions for other programs favored by Democrats and many Republicans.
Among the beneficiaries is the National Institutes of Health, which would receive a $620 million budget hike, about 2 percent. The FBI would get a modest $200 million increase in its $6 billion budget, while the maximum Pell Grant for lower-income college students would increase by $260 to $4,310.
The rapidly growing veterans health care budget got a 13 percent boost. U.S. contributions to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis overseas would rise 40 percent, to $4.5 billion.
The bill provides increases for underperforming schools and community health centers, and grants to state and local law enforcement agencies. Amtrak's budget would be frozen at $1.3 billion instead of absorbing a $400 million cut proposed by Bush.
There was relatively little controversy over the bill itself — as demonstrated by the vote — but Republicans grumbled about hardball tactics employed by Majority Leader Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record), D-Nev., in bringing the measure to the floor. And conservatives blasted Democrats for using budget tricks to add billions of dollars.