Faced with pressures to deal with a spate of unanticipated natural disasters as well as with the election-year needs of dozens of key constituencies, Congress moved this week to break through Republican-imposed spending limits for bills funding the government in 2005.
Last night, the Senate tacked a $2.9 billion agriculture relief package onto a bill funding homeland security programs in 2005. The provision, agreed to by voice vote, will speed aid to farmers and ranchers whose crops, livestock or trees have been damaged by droughts, early frosts and floods. The underlying homeland security bill passed late last night, 93 to 0.
In addition, GOP leaders promised to act quickly on a $3.1 billion request for hurricane relief submitted yesterday by President Bush, but a vote was postponed until after the congressional recess for the Jewish New Year. The request came after Congress last week rushed through $2 billion in hurricane-related aid.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the Appropriations Committee, defended a plan to use budget devices to add $6 billion to $7 billion to pending appropriations bills for fiscal 2005.
"There's an overwhelming need there for more money," Stevens said after emerging from a luncheon caucus of Republican senators.
The budgetary maneuvering in the Senate would push discretionary spending in 2005 well above the $821.6 billion ceiling set by the White House.
That ceiling has resulted in a major squeeze on popular domestic programs, even as spending for the Pentagon and domestic counterterrorism programs soars. The near-freeze in domestic spending that the Bush administration proposed has brought protests from key constituencies, including universities, medical research centers and community health groups.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said this week that Congress should hold the line on spending. But he is pressing for the House Appropriations Committee to restore about $1.1 billion that it cut from the Bush administration's budget proposal for NASA.
The cuts would affect Mars exploration, in which NASA facilities based in DeLay's home town of Houston have a role. The NASA funding dispute has stalled action on the bill, which also funds veterans and environmental programs.
To gain breathing room, Senate aides have circulated a plan that would use devices such as postponing by several days the mailing of Supplemental Security Income checks. This and other moves could enable the Senate to increase funding for veterans, Amtrak and nutrition programs for women with children, GOP aides said.
"We're moving dates," Stevens confirmed. "What we're doing is sensible." But he acknowledged that there is opposition from fiscal purists, saying Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who chairs the Budget Committee, "is not too happy about it."
The tight limits on domestic programs contrast with freer spending on the war in Iraq and natural disasters. In July, Congress approved $25 billion for the war. More will be needed early next year.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) yesterday hailed the administration's $3.1 billion request for relief from the devastation of hurricanes Charley and Frances.
Although the latest request deals with the aftermath of the most recent hurricanes, Young noted that with more storms likely, additional aid could be necessary.
Of the total, $2 billion would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides aid to individuals and state agencies. Funds were also requested for the Small Business Administration, the American Red Cross and NASA, which suffered damage to the Kennedy Space Center.
Despite a loosening of purse strings in other areas, the Senate yesterday turned back Democratic initiatives to increase spending for homeland security, including a proposal to nearly double funding for such high-threat urban areas as New York and Washington.
As it considered the $36.7 billion spending bill for domestic security, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, both New York Democrats, to add $625 million to the $875 million already in the legislation for the nation's most vulnerable population centers. This would have brought the total to $1.5 billion, the figure recommended by Bush for high-risk areas.
But Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, said that high-threat areas are receiving extra money and that their needs are being met.
The largely party-line vote was 50 to 43 against the amendment. It would have taken 60 votes to approve the additional money because it breached budget limits.
Maryland Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes voted for the proposal; Virginia Republicans John W. Warner and George Allen voted against it.
Few other Democratic proposals have passed during a week of debate on the measure, although the Senate approved a bipartisan amendment to add $687 million for border protection, air marshals and other security efforts. Yesterday the Senate rejected efforts to add funds for firefighters and enhanced security at chemical plants.