Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Money: It's only paper

Senate panel passes emergency funding bill
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday, ignoring skyrocketing federal budget deficits, piled money onto a spending bill for war and hurricane rebuilding to produce an election-year measure that would spend about $107 billion.

Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee also eagerly approved more federal aid for farmers, added $2.3 billion to fight a possible avian flu pandemic, voted to give more aid to the U.S. fishing industry hurt by Hurricane Katrina and spread dollars for other interests.

President George W. Bush had requested nearly $92 billion to feed U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, continue rebuilding Gulf Coast states hard hit by Hurricane Katrina and other storms last year and to increase foreign aid.

The move to boost the spending level above the administration's original request "is cause for serious concern," said Scott Milburn, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

However, he welcomed the progress on moving the emergency spending measure forward.

Last month, the House of Representatives approved the Bush administration's request for the emergency funds for this fiscal year, which ends September 30.

But the Senate, which hopes to pass its version of the legislation in late April, jacked up the price tag significantly, leading one Republican Senate aide to say that it will make for "an interesting" Senate floor debate.

The budget-busting bill comes as many congressional Republicans are struggling to craft re-election campaigns on a platform of fiscal responsibility, even as Republicans have presided over a $3 trillion increase in U.S. debt since 2002.

The legislation could become even more bloated before the full Senate passes it, as senators indicated they might seek more money for projects ranging from levee rebuilding in New Orleans to aid for dairy farmers and veterans' health care.


Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, said she would block Senate confirmation of all new presidential appointees until the administration comes forth with a $6 billion request for levee protection and coastal restoration in Louisiana.

Landrieu acknowledged that the Senate Appropriations Committee bill addressed some of her concerns by adding "several hundred million dollars" for flood control protections around New Orleans.

Landrieu also succeeded on Tuesday in doubling the panel's $600 million to build cottages for hurricane victims, instead of relying on trailers for temporary housing.

Like the House-passed measure, the Senate bill would give Bush his request for about $67 billion for the Defense Department to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The money is in addition to the hundreds of billions being spent each year on Pentagon programs.

With the added money, the running tab for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would total nearly $400 billion, with more than three-quarters of that spent fighting in Iraq.

Mississippi was one of three southern states bearing the brunt of Hurricane Katrina's destruction last August and Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, a Republican from that state, added storm funding to the legislation.

As passed by his committee, $24.4 billion would be added to about $70 billion already spent on disaster aid. The Bush administration had requested about $5 billion less.

Farm state lawmakers seized upon the emergency spending bill, winning about $3.8 billion in money to help farmers recover from flooding last spring in the northern plains, drought in the Midwestern Corn Belt, Gulf Coast flooding and higher fuel costs.

The panel also approved more than $1 billion in new money for the U.S. fishing industry that would rebuild storm-damaged marinas, ice houses and help buy new fishing equipment.

Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, complaining about "paper-thin port security," won an additional $648 million to increase U.S. port inspections, hire more inspectors and buy radiation-detection equipment. The legislation also would provide $35.6 million for improved mine safety following 16 coal mining deaths in Byrd's state this year.