Senate Sends Big Spending Bill to Bush To Sign

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Associated Press

Senate Sends Big Spending Bill to Bush To Sign

by
Andrew Taylor

US soldiers stand close to an Iraqi soldier sitting in an armoured vehicle in the western Ghazaliyah neighborhood of Baghdad September 10, 2008. In addition to $70 billion approved this summer for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department would receive $488 billion, a 6 percent increase. (AFP/File/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

WASHINGTON - Automakers gained $25 billion in
taxpayer-subsidized loans and oil companies won elimination of a
long-standing ban on drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as
the Senate passed a sprawling spending bill Saturday.

The 78-12
vote sent the $634 billion measure to President Bush, who was expected
to sign it even though it spends more money and contains more pet
projects than he would have liked.

The measure is needed to keep
the government operating beyond the current budget year, which ends
Tuesday. As a result, the legislation is one of the few bills this
election year that simply must pass. Bush's signature would mean
Congress could avoid a lame-duck session after the Nov. 4 election.

White
House spokesman Tony Fratto said the bill "stands as a reminder of the
failure of the Democratic Congress to fund the government in regular
order." But, he said, it "puts the United States one step closer to
ending our dependence on foreign sources of energy" by lifting the
offshore drilling ban and opening up huge reserves of oil shale in the
West.

The Pentagon is in line for a record budget. In addition to
$70 billion approved this summer for operations in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the Defense Department would receive $488 billion, a 6
percent increase. The spending bill also offers aid to victims of
flooding in the Midwest and recent hurricanes across the Gulf Coast.

Such
a huge bill usually would dominate the end-of-session agenda on Capitol
Hill. But it went below the radar screen because attention focused on
the congressional bailout of Wall Street.

The measure settles
dozens of battles that have brewed for months between the Democrats who
run Congress and the White House and its GOP allies.

The
administration won approval of the defense budget. Democrats wrested
concessions from the White House on $23 billion for disaster-ravaged
states, a doubling of low-income heating subsidies, and smaller
spending items such as $24 million more for food shipments to the
elderly.

The loan package for automakers would reward them with
$25 billion in below-market loans, costing taxpayers $7.5 billion to
subsidize the retooling of plants and development of technologies to
help U.S. carmakers to build cleaner, more fuel efficient cars.
Companies would not have to begin repaying the loans for five years,
drawing objections from Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who predicted they would
return for more help when the money is due.

Republicans made
ending the coastal drilling ban a central campaign issue this summer as
$4-plus per gallon gasoline stoked voter anger and turned public
opinion in favor of more exploration.

The action does not mean
drilling is imminent and still leaves the oil-rich eastern Gulf of
Mexico off limits. But it could set the stage for the government to
offer leases in some Atlantic federal waters as early as 2011.

Also
in the bill is money to avert a shortfall in Pell college aid grants
and solve problems in the Women, Infants and Children program
delivering healthy foods to the poor.

In addition to the
Pentagon's budget, there is $40 billion for the Homeland Security
Department and $73 billion for veterans' programs and military base
construction projects. Combined with the Defense Department's spending,
that amounts to about 60 percent of the budget work Congress must pass
each year.

Democrats came under criticism from the GOP for
short-circuiting the normal process for a spending bill after it became
clear that Republicans would force difficult votes on the drilling ban.

Democrats
also wanted to avoid an election-year clash with Bush that would have
played in his favor. They are willing to take their chances that
Democrat Barack Obama will be elected president in November and permit
increases for scores of programs squeezed by Bush each year.

Bush
had threatened to veto bills that did not cut the number and cost of
pet projects in half or cause agency operating budgets to exceed his
request. Democrats ignored the edict as they drafted the plan and the
White House has apparently backed down.

Taxpayers for Common
Sense, a watchdog group, discovered 2,322 pet projects totaling $6.6
billion. That included 2,025 in the defense portion alone that cost a
total of $4.9 billion. Critics of such projects are likely to discover
numerous examples of links to lobbyists and campaign contributions.

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