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US Senate Approves Massive Spending Bill - 2004-01-22

The U.S. Senate Thursday approved a massive spending bill that funds most non-military government operations for the current budget year. The $375 billion measure now goes to President Bush for his signature.

The bill, which the House passed last month, includes seven of the 13 annual spending bills for the budget year that began October 1. The other six bills already have been signed into law.

The legislation funds activities ranging from foreign aid to operations at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. space program.

It includes money for the global fight against AIDS ($2.4 billion, military and economic aid to Israel (more than $2.5 billion), Egypt (nearly $2 billion), and Jordan (almost half a billion), and funds the newly established Office of Terrorist Financing at the Treasury Department.

The Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, praised the legislation.

"This bill is a good consensus," he said. "It is good for the country, and it will fund the agencies that need the money, and need the money now."

But many Democrats said the bill shortchanges education and veterans' health programs, and drops policy provisions approved by both houses of Congress. Such measures, among other things, would have forced the Bush administration to lift the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba and blocked it from changing overtime pay rules.

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York was among a number of Democrats who accused the White House of pressuring the Republican majority in Congress to drop those provisions.

"We are undermining our checks and balances of our Constitution, we are undermining the accountability, we are undermining the co-equal branch of government," said Hillary Clinton. "If all we wanted was a king, we would have put a king into the Constitution who could do whatever the king wanted to do. Why do we need a democracy for?"

The legislation also had its Republican critics who complained about the special interest projects slipped into the package during final congressional negotiations. Such projects, often referred to as "pork", benefit local districts of influential lawmakers, and this year included $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Iowa and $1.8 million for exotic pet disease research in California.

The conservative budget watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, estimated there are nearly 8,000 projects costing more than $10 billion in the bill.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona is furious.

"It appears the big spenders in this body have all but stolen the credit card numbers of every hard-working taxpayer in America and gone on a limitless spending spree for parochial pork-barrel projects, leaving the taxpayers to pay and pay," said Senator McCain.

Critics of the bill used parliamentary tactics to block it from coming to a vote earlier this week. But after Republican leaders warned of massive cuts in government programs if the legislation failed to pass, enough Democrats voted with the majority to allow the bill to clear the Senate.