Congress reached final agreement last night on a $388 billion spending bill funding 13 government departments and dozens of domestic agencies in 2005, after last-minute objections from abortion rights advocates threatened to delay or derail the entire measure.
House passage came on a vote of 344 to 51. Later in the evening, the Senate gave its approval, 65 to 30.
The bill, consisting of more than 1,000 pages and weighing 14 pounds, codifies the stingiest budget for domestic departments since the late 1990s. Although a few favored agencies, such as Amtrak and NASA, were spared cuts, the measure bears evidence of a new austerity in domestic spending, brought about by soaring budget deficits and the rising costs of war and counterterrorism programs.
The abortion battle erupted after Senate negotiators on the huge spending package unexpectedly agreed to a House-backed provision that opponents described as part of a broad strategy by Republican social conservatives to "chip away" at abortion rights. It would bar federal, state or local agencies from forcing doctors, hospitals, insurers, HMOs or other health care entities to provide abortion services or referrals.
"Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, but Republicans are gutting it step by step," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Republicans denied that the legislation would restrict access to abortion and said it is intended only to prevent government agencies from "intimidating" health care entities that did not perform abortions or provide training or referrals.
The abortion language remained in the spending bill, but late yesterday, Senate opponents agreed not to block its consideration after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) promised to schedule a vote in the near future on a bill drafted by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to repeal the provision.
Adding to the chaotic finale of the proceedings on the giant bill was a last-minute fracas over another provision, apparently slipped into the bill at the last minute by a House staff aide, that would allow agents designated by the chairman of the House or Senate Appropriations Committee to look at tax returns.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) described the provision as a "terrible, egregious abuse of power," and GOP senators joined in denouncing it.
To snuff out what appeared to be an incipient rebellion, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) took the floor to apologize for the provision and to promise that it would be corrected.
"It's wrong," an angry Stevens shouted at one point, saying it was inserted without his knowledge.
Under an agreement between GOP and Democratic leaders, the Senate later approved language dropping the controversial provision and delayed sending the bill to the president until the House follows suit next week. With spending authority for most federal agencies running out at midnight, Congress also approved stopgap legislation to keep the government running until the spending package becomes law.
The uproar over abortion and tax returns all but overshadowed the underlying spending bill, which Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) described as "a lean and clean package."
The White House had threatened to veto the entire package if domestic spending grew by more than 1 percent, and GOP officials boasted that they had stayed within that margin.
Faced with this ceiling, House and Senate conferees launched marathon negotiations, juggling accounts to take care of White House and congressional priorities.