The House of Representatives has approved (242-176) a massive spending bill containing money for a range of government departments and programs. The House Republican majority won easy passage of the legislation despite opposition from Democrats, but the bill faces a harder and uncertain road in the Senate.
The bill was made necessary because Congress, notably the Senate, failed to take final action on seven individual pieces of legislation to fund federal agencies and programs.
It provides for $820 billion in government spending in 2004, about a third of the total budget, of which $328 billion is so-called "discretionary" spending for programs determined and controlled by annual congressional appropriations.
Lawmakers rolled all of the bills, including money for the Department of State and several other government agencies, into one large "omnibus" bill.
Before Monday's vote, the stage was already set for what has become a common feature of this congressional session, partisan bickering over spending priorities.
Democrats accused Republicans of under-funding and undermining a number of domestic priorities. Wisconsin Congressman David Obey said "this bill is a pitiful Christmas tree, with such a bad smell that it smells more like a garbage truck than something appropriate to Christmas."
In response, Republicans say they have enforced fiscal discipline, suggesting that Democrats would be spending more money if they controlled Congress.
House Republican leader Tom DeLay said "the real opposition [from Democrats] is coming because there is not enough spending. And I say to my colleagues, if you want to show real fiscal restraint, we're doing it here in this bill, and we're doing it within the budget that we passed this year."
Bill Young, Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said failure to approve the legislation would force government agencies to operate at 2003 funding levels until January. "It's important that we pass this bill today and I hope that we pass it with numbers large enough so that our friends at the other end of the Capitol understand that we're serious about this government of ours functioning, we're serious about the issues that we brought to the attention of the Congress and that we intend to see them implemented," he said.
Democrats have complained for months that Republicans have used "dictatorial" tactics to limit debate on key bills, while adding numerous provisions benefiting special interests.
The focus of Democrat's anger is on methods the House Republican leadership used two weeks ago to achieve passage of a major bill reforming the Medicare system.
In that vote, Republicans held open a final vote count for three hours rather than the usual 15 minutes to obtain key "yes" votes from reluctant members.
After Monday's vote, Democrats, led by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, introduced a special "privileged resolution" protesting Republican tactics. "This is not the House our founders envisioned. Such behavior is unfair, it is un-American, and it is unacceptable," she said.
The legislation includes money for one program the Bush administration considers a priority, $2.4 billion in 2004 as part of a five-year $15 billion program to fight AIDS and Malaria in Africa and the Caribbean.
The spending bill faces a tougher, and possibly longer, road in the Senate.
The Republican leadership has been pressured by the White House to vote on the bill before Christmas, but has given no indication it plans to call senators back for a vote, possibly delaying final debate and action until January.