House and Senate negotiators agreed yesterday to an emergency spending bill to fund Iraq and Afghanistan war costs, provide international food aid and tsunami relief, and curtail illegal immigration while expanding a popular guest-worker visa program.
The legislation took longer than expected to complete, given that the bulk of the $82 billion package consists of high-priority military aid. House-Senate conferees had to fight off a series of unrelated projects pushed by individual lawmakers and barely met their goal of staying at or under President Bush's initial request. Still, the bill agreed to by the negotiators is higher than the versions passed by each chamber, and that may not be a good omen considering the tough spending decisions that await Congress.
The House is scheduled to approve the spending bill this week; the Senate is expected to take it up next week after its recess.
Nearly $76 billion of the bill goes to combat-related expenditures, about $921 million more than the White House requested. The compromise also increases service member death benefits and the onetime death gratuity for combat fatalities, and adds a $100,000 insurance benefit for soldiers who have suffered traumatic injuries such as the loss of a limb or sight.
The final bill boosts funding for international food aid, providing $240 million, or $90 million more than the Bush request, and provides as much as $50 million to support African Union peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, Sudan.
But total foreign assistance was reduced by $1.5 billion, to $4.2 billion. For instance, the negotiators provide $592 million for the construction of a Baghdad embassy, about $70 million below the White House request. International peacekeeping and global war on terrorism funds got chopped, including money for a new law school, a courthouse, industrial parks and media development projects in Afghanistan that negotiators said were low priorities.
One major beneficiary is the Palestinian territories, which would receive $200 million in economic and infrastructure assistance. But the bill requires an independent audit of the Palestinian Authority's financial structures and a report on its political, economic and security reforms. The bill also provides $907 million in tsunami relief to Indian Ocean countries, according to a Senate summary, including $25.4 million for a warning system to help localities better prepare for the deadly storms.
The House and Senate each slipped in immigration provisions that reflect a growing sense of urgency about the surge in illegal workers. House Republicans secured the tighter asylum and driver's license rules they had originally sought in an intelligence bill last year, while Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) won a higher cap on seasonal guest workers, an issue she took up in response to labor shortages in the Chesapeake Bay crabbing industry.
Expensive add-ons show up in domestic homeland security and border patrol operations. The compromise bill adds $450 million in new spending, for a total $635 million, to hire border patrol agents and immigration and customs investigators, and to beef up detention facilities.
Congress also got a head start in an upcoming debate with the Pentagon over how to stem growth in the military budget. The compromise blocks funds from being used to reduce the number of active Navy aircraft carriers, a bid to save the USS John F. Kennedy from retirement, and from implementing a winner-take-all strategy in the acquisition of the DD(X) Navy destroyer. The latter could harm the Pascagoula shipyard in Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran's home state of Mississippi.
One reason negotiations dragged on was that several lawmakers insisted their pet provisions be included. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), for instance, pressed for days to secure $95 million for Nevada agricultural and water projects, but was rebuffed.
As lawmakers scrambled for a deal, the Pentagon said coffers were nearing empty. In an April 27 letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that "the Army's operating funds will be exhausted in early May."
The Pentagon informed lawmakers in a letter yesterday that it will require nearly $1.1 billion in funding transfers to prevent the Army "from having to stop essential activities both stateside and overseas" until Bush signs the bill.