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Congress Approves Massive Spending Bill

Senators approved the 1,200-page bill by a vote of 65-28, sending the measure to President Bush for his signature a month after the House passed the package. The bill finances agriculture, veterans and most other domestic programs for the fiscal year that began some four months ago on Oct. 1.

The massive measure upholds divisive Bush administration policies on overtime pay, media ownership and food labeling. Democrats who opposed some of those policies had succeeded on Tuesday in blocking a vote on final passage.

“Nobody here wants to be accused of shutting the government down,” said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. “But it is with great concern and chagrin that we find ourselves in this position today.”

The bill funds administration proposals to enact new rules allowing companies to pay overtime to fewer white collar workers, ease requirements for federal gun records and allow media conglomerates to own more television stations.

The media ownership language represents a compromise between Congress and the administration. Last summer, the Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to ease a number of media ownership rules, including one that would allow television networks to purchase more stations, extending their national reach from 35 percent to 45 percent of the nation’s viewing audience.

Many members of Congress and advocacy groups, like Consumers Union, opposed raising the national ownership cap from 35 to 45 percent, arguing networks would wield too much control over local programming and broadcast content.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, had attached a rider to the appropriations bill that would effectively keep the national cap at 35 percent by budgeting no funding for the FCC to implement the new regulation. But the White House had threatened to veto any legislation that contained language to undo the FCC rules.

In the fall, members of Congress and the White House struck a compromise that would set the national cap at 39 percent, which was approved in the bill.

Another policy included in the bill would postpone for two years a requirement that meat and many other foods sold in stores have labels identifying their country of origin.

The legislation also contains funds for White House priorities including fighting AIDS in Africa, aid for countries engaging in democratic reforms and the AmeriCorps national service program.

“It is time to move on,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “The country demands that we complete action on this bill.”

“Take it or leave it,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said of the Republican’s attitude on the bill. “This is one senator who’s going to leave it because of what it will do to working families and women and veterans of this country.”

Lawmakers largely support the bill’s increases for veterans’ health care, schools, highway projects, farm conservation efforts, improved local election systems and biomedical research.

The measure also has nearly 8,000 so-called earmarks for local projects costing $10.7 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that pushes for lower spending.

Lawmakers from both parties have protested the package’s earmarks at a time when federal budget deficits are at high levels.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who voted to continue delaying the bill, complained that it was filled with special-interest spending.

“It’s hard to pick the ugliest pig in this sty,” McCain said, according to The New York Times.

Sixteen Democrats and 45 Republicans voted Thursday to end the delays and pass the bill. They included 11 Democrats and two Republicans who voted the opposite way on Tuesday, plus two other Democrats who missed Tuesday’s vote. Two Republicans who voted Tuesday to end debate were absent Thursday.

One lawmaker who switched votes, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said that while Tuesday’s vote gave Democrats the chance to point out “egregious provisions” in the measure, “the weight falls more heavily on getting the bill finished and getting the money out there.”

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