Congress last night approved and sent to President Bush a $4.4 billion emergency spending bill that includes $720 million in aid sought by the White House for the new governments of Nicaragua and Panama.
Final Senate passage came after a long day of wrangling in the House over numerous special projects put in the measure by individual lawmakers, and after members there voted 208 to 161 to strip a provision that would have allocated another $25 million to House members for mail costs, which this year are running at a record high.
It also followed a failure of negotiations between congressional leaders and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney over how to shift Pentagon funds in order to avert the layoffs of tens of thousands of uniformed military personnel this fiscal year because of across-the-board budget cuts ordered by budget legislation last year.
Despite the mail vote, which lawmakers said was the result of election-year pressures, the Postal Service by law must continue to send House mail under the congressional frank. "We will end up continuing to mail," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who fought unsuccessfully for extra mail costs, which would have come from previously authorized but unspent legislative branch funds.
"We have become franking junkies around here," said House GOP leader Robert H. Michel (D-Ill.).
Almost half of the cost of the supplemental spending measure is offset by savings in defense programs. But the cost of the legislation has steadily grown as it has worked its way through the House and Senate, with the final conference agreement including $1.4 billion in new discretionary spending. The measure provides additional spending for a host of purposes sought by the administration and Congress, including $1.2 billion for food stamps, $216 million for disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Hugo and recent flooding in the southeast and $529 million for veterans programs.
Bush, seeking an infusion of assistance to the new Nicaragua government of Violeta Chamorro and to foster an economic recovery in Panama following the U.S. invasion, has repeatedly pushed Congress to enact the aid package quickly.
The president's pleas were largely ignored yesterday, however, as the House bogged down in arguments over lawmakers' special projects, such as a $6 million provision sought by Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa) to buy land for a wildlife refuge and another to give a $750,000 ship from the Defense Department to American Samoa to ease transport among the territory's islands.
After debating into the night, the only cut made was a $238 million provision for an Army explosives plant in Louisiana pushed by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) that would replicate an existing facility in Tennessee.
As the House debated the spending bill, efforts to negotiate a means of saving tens of thousands of military jobs by cutting money for strategic weapons systems were postponed until after next week's U.S.-Soviet summit, said Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
At issue is $780 million in pay withheld in the current budget because of automatic Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction cuts. The Pentagon has proposed shifting money from certain programs to cover the shortfall. But Aspin has rejected that list and insisted that some of the funds come from strategic programs.
Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.