The Senate, setting aside several days of party-line battling over a massive spending bill, voted 88 to 4 yesterday to increase home heating aid to low-income people by $300 million this year.
The solidly bipartisan vote came as the Senate's newly installed Republican leaders considered ways to pass the giant bill in the face of 245 proposed amendments that could bring its costs well above a ceiling set by the White House.
"I assume we're going to get it passed," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Yesterday's vote came against a backdrop of what has been continuing partisan -- and regional -- skirmishing over a massive bill funding government departments and programs through Sept. 30. Farm organizations representing regional agricultural interests, for example, have been battling over the distribution of federal assistance for drought damage.
The price tag of the overall bill has crept up by about $4.3 billion over the past week, as funding for classified intelligence programs and western firefighting were added. By cutting other programs, Republicans then made room for another $11.3 billion for school districts, Medicare providers, farmers hurt by drought and states required to improve their voting systems.
Stevens said the added assistance for home heating bills -- strongly advocated by a bipartisan group of northeastern senators -- will not add to the cost of the bill, because the funds will be taken from money left over from several years ago.
Democrats have used the legislation to lay out their differences with Republicans, and have put forward a series of amendments calling for additional spending. Democratic senators this week proposed additional funds for schoolchildren with disabilities, unemployment benefits for jobless workers and drought-stricken farmers.
But Republicans have parried these moves by insisting that, in the interest of fiscal responsibility, funding increases for critical programs such as educating the disabled be offset by cuts elsewhere.
The White House also has entered the fray, by selectively disclosing parts of its 2004 budget to counter charges that the poor and minorities are losing out in its economic agenda. On Monday, the administration announced it would seek $45 million for a counseling program for minority first-time home buyers -- more than double the amount for 2002.
The announcement was timed to a Martin Luther King Jr. birthday event in New York attended by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel R. Martinez.