KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE -- President Bush began a pre-summit vacation by signing into law an aid package for Panama and Nicaragua swollen by tens of millions of dollars worth of pet projects for members of Congress.
The measure provides $420 million for Panama, which is rebuilding after U.S. economic sanctions and an invasion of U.S. forces last December to topple Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega from power.
Nicaragua's new government, led by U.S.-backed President Violeta Chamorro, will receive $300 million.
Overall, the spending measure provides $4.4 billion in domestic spending and foreign assistance. The administration's high priority on winning aid for Panama and Nicaragua led Bush to swallow pork-barrel spending added by Congress.
The measure was flown to Bush's seaside Maine compound for his signature. A White House statement said Bush signed it Friday night.
Before leaving Washington, Bush called the leaders of Panama and Nicaragua to tell them Congress had approved their aid package.
In Central America, Panamanian and Nicaraguan leaders said the aid would help their economies but would not solve all their problems.
Panamanian President Guillermo Endara at a news conference promised judicious use of the money for "the greatest benefit to all Panamanians," while Nicaraguan presidential spokesman Danilo Lacayo said the money would "stabilize a little the situation we live in" at the start of the planting season.
Bush had asked Congress for $800 million for Panama and Nicaragua, but Congress pared his request while adding money elsewhere. When passed, the bill contained $4 in domestic spending for every dollar of Latin American aid.
For example, the measure included nearly 40 individual grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development totaling $28 million, most of them for communities whose members of Congress are on the House and Senate Appropriations committees.
On the list was $400,000 to fill in a collapsed utility tunnel in Salisbury, N.C., sought by Rep. W.G. (Bill) Hefner (D-N.C.), and $990,000 to repair a waterfront park in Bay City, Mich., in the district of Rep. Bob Traxler (D).
The measure also provides $1.2 billion to make up a shortfall in food stamp funds for the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, $545 million for veterans benefits, $166 million for Head Start and $432 million for fighting forest fires.
It also includes other foreign assistance: $75 million to meet refugee needs around the world; $45 million in anti-narcotics aid to Bolivia and Peru; $30 million for aid to Caribbean countries; and $30 million for Africa.