House and Senate negotiators, working under the tightest budgetary restraints since the late 1990s, neared agreement late yesterday on a $388 billion spending package that funds 13 government departments in 2005 but provides little or no growth in dozens of popular domestic programs.
The huge "omnibus" bill, the product of weeks of bargaining and dealmaking behind closed doors, reflects the squeeze on domestic agencies caused by the soaring budget deficit and the costs of the Iraq war and the global counterterrorism effort.
Republicans in both houses were hopeful they could call up the bill for a final vote today and then adjourn the 108th Congress. Late yesterday, negotiators were still juggling figures to try to comply with a White House demand that domestic spending grow by less than 1 percent.
To meet that target, lawmakers agreed to trim almost all non-defense programs by 0.75 percent across the board -- a move that could wipe out much of the $1 billion increase for federal aid to education that negotiators had agreed to in the final stages.
But negotiators rejected a White House request that they drop a 3.5 percent pay increase for civilian government workers.
Negotiators ordered cuts in congressional favorites such as the National Science Foundation and the $3 billion-a-year Environmental Protection Agency program that funds sewer and water projects in cities, rural communities and Indian reservations. Money was to be reduced for the Housing and Urban Development and State departments, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Bureau of Land Management, sources said. The Labor and Interior departments were to receive only nominal increases.
As White House budget officials warned congressional leaders that they would recommend a veto of the spending package if the amount climbed higher, they also pleaded with lawmakers to provide more money for top White House priorities. These included the president's Millennium Challenge foreign aid initiative, manned and robotic missions in space, research on hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and the Marriages and Healthy Families program, which supports teenage sexual abstinence and responsible fatherhood.
Domestic spending controlled by Congress in annual spending bills began growing sharply in the final two years of the Clinton administration when budget surpluses replaced years of deficits. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bush administration began applying the brakes.
Last year, funding for domestic programs and departments rose by 2.7 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group. This year's budget will be even smaller after inflation is factored in, center officials said yesterday.
Along with concerns expressed about funding levels, some members yesterday also criticized legislation that is riding along on the huge bill.
Nine female senators, including one Republican, Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), demanded yesterday that negotiators drop House-backed language that they contended allows health care plans and hospitals to refuse to comply with federal and state laws pertaining to abortion services.
Under the provision, sponsored by Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.), state governments could lose federal funds if they were found to discriminate against any "health care entity" that opts not to provide abortion services or referrals. Supporters of the change say it would protect Catholic hospitals and health insurers from "harassment" by state officials. In a letter yesterday, the nine senators said it would expose abortion providers to more intimidation by antiabortion groups.
GOP leaders, fearing that new legislative riders could stall enactment of the bill, turned down a number of other provisions, sources said.
They rejected an effort led by Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) to attach the Water Resources Development Act, authorizing such things as a $3 billion Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam reconstruction project on the upper Mississippi River. The project has been strongly opposed by environmental organizations.
Also left out of the bill was a provision pushed by the Midwest pork industry and feedlot operators and meat packers in the Southwest to block pending rules requiring meat and other food products to carry a label stating whether they have originated in the United States or foreign countries.
Late yesterday, the conferees were still considering whether to add a provision that would exempt livestock feeding operations from requirements to report to local, state and federal agencies their toxic chemical releases. Environmental groups sent out an alert saying the provision would exempt huge cattle feedlots and hog containment "factories" from Clean Air Act requirements "to limit emissions of such hazardous chemicals as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide as animal waste decomposes."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.