Final negotiations over a $395 billion spending bill for government departments this year remained stalled yesterday as Republican leaders met behind closed doors to try to resolve disputes over environmental protections for Alaskan forests and aid to drought-stricken farmers.
The huge annual appropriations bill, which has been delayed for more than four months by partisan battling, carries funding for such urgent needs as U.S. troops in Afghanistan, combating AIDS in Africa, hiring more staff for the Securities and Exchange Commission and strengthening the nation's defense against acts of bioterrorism.
But in the final phase, it has been held up by a dispute between the House and Senate over how to divide $3.1 billion in aid to farmers suffering climate-related losses. "There's a difference of opinion on who should get the money," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In response to House objections, Senate negotiators agreed to channel more of the funds to farmers who could demonstrate actual need. But parochial issues have also contributed to the impasse, sources said, with House negotiators pressing for additional help for citrus and tobacco growers and owners of tuberculosis-infected cattle. One House proposal reportedly would have reduced aid to western livestock raisers, an important constituency of western senators.
With the White House continuing to insist yesterday that any farm aid be offset either by cuts in other farm programs or government-wide reductions in all domestic programs, fiscal problems were also a stumbling block.
GOP leaders, meanwhile, gave no sign they were prepared to ease provisions affecting Alaskan forests, despite opposition from pro-environment Republican moderates in the House.
An indignant Stevens, who wrote the provisions, warned that foes "are not going to use the environmental movement to tell lies about our state."
One provision would exempt about 1.9 million acres in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska from a regulation promulgated by President Bill Clinton, banning roads across 58.5 million acres of remote forest in the United States. Stevens said his rider would cover only forest acreage that had been specifically opened to development under a 1997 plan for the Tongass.
Environmental groups say the area affected, though only a small part of Tongass's 17 million acres, contains much of its remaining stands of commercially valuable old growth timber.
Yesterday, eight Republican moderates led by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.), drafted a letter to colleagues objecting to new environmental provisions added to the spending bill "behind closed doors."
It was unclear whether opponents could muster enough votes to force changes in the overall spending bill when it goes to the House floor.
GOP leaders had hoped to wrap up the bill this week, but with no new spending bills likely for months, it seemed yesterday that every member of Congress had something to add. "This is the Whack-a-Mole bill," said Stevens, referring to a popular amusement park game. "Every time you get one [thing] done, two more pop up."