Congressional negotiators, spurred by Vice President Cheney's active involvement, were nearing completion late yesterday of a mammoth domestic spending bill after agreeing to add $6.1 billion for U.S. military activities in Afghanistan.
The funds for the Pentagon will push the price tag of the bill well over $389.9 billion, the top figure set by the White House budget office in a letter to Congress last week. The money could be the first installment of billions of dollars more for the Pentagon if the United States goes to war with Iraq.
But GOP aides said yesterday that they were hopeful the inclusion of the funds, along with $3.9 billion added earlier for war-related intelligence activities, could strengthen support for a speedy final passage of the long-stalled spending measure.
For months, Congress has balked at providing President Bush blanket authority to spend as much as $10 billion from a wartime reserve account. But under a deal brokered by Cheney late last week between Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and senior members of the House and Senate appropriations committees, the $6.1 billion in military funds would be appropriated under more standard procedures.
"The vice president has been a tremendous help. I can't say enough good things about him," said James W. Dyer, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. GOP officials now hope that Cheney can help find ways to add billions of dollars for education and election reform.
GOP lawmakers want to bring the spending bill to the floor of both chambers for passage no later than Thursday.
The bill finances all domestic departments and the U.S. foreign aid program through September. Completion of the legislation, which lumps together 11 annual appropriations bills, stalled last year.
But a number of potential battles loom over funding and environmental provisions written into the bill.
GOP officials were close to abandoning the idea of incorporating about $3.8 billion in drought relief for farmers in the bill because of the tight ceiling imposed by the White House.
Environmentalists in both parties have vowed to remove language that would allow Interior Department funds to be used for early studies of oil and gas development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Also, as currently written, the legislation would not allow environmental organizations to challenge in court a wilderness plan for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska that is to be completed in 60 days.
Funds for federal and state land and water conservation programs would be reduced by $166 million. But House and Senate negotiators have restored funding for the FBI and State Department that was cut in earlier versions of the package.
The section of the measure funding veterans, housing and environmental programs also fares well in the final agreement, sources said.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has proposed $100 million to help fishermen, $35 million of which would go to fishermen in his state.
Aides said yesterday that negotiators have yet to resolve how to pay for such "add-ons," which could require government-wide cuts to keep the package within the limits set by the White House.