House passes omnibus spending bill with 3.5 percent raise

The House late Monday approved a $516 billion omnibus spending measure providing funding for 14 Cabinet departments, and backed funding for troops in Afghanistan.

President Bush has signaled he'll ultimately sign the measure, the Associated Press reported, as long as the Senate provides up to $40 billion more for the Iraq war.

The bill includes a 3.5 percent average pay raise for white-collar federal employees, which is higher than the 3 percent Bush had proposed. Congress already has approved a 3.5 percent increase for military service.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley called the salary provision "welcome congressional recognition of the need for a fair and adequate pay raise," saying it showed "the widespread understanding among members of Congress of the important role pay has in the ability of federal agencies to recruit and retain the talented employees needed to perform the increasingly complex work of serving the public."

Historically, omnibus appropriations bills have afforded the majority party broad leeway to tuck in policy riders or extraneous legislation that would have otherwise stalled in the legislative process.

This year largely marked a shift away from that practice.

Anxious to secure President Bush's signature on the massive bill and leave town, Democratic leaders surrendered on various policy fronts as well as overall funding totals.

In the end, Democrats were stymied by Bush's steadfast refusal to negotiate, new ethics rules meant to clamp down on big-ticket, last-minute insertions, and their fatigue and desire to complete this year's budget and start fresh in January.

The process is not complete, and a bipartisan group of senators are threatening to block new media ownership rules if the Federal Communications Commission moves forward as scheduled Tuesday.

A similar move by lawmakers in 2003 was met with a Bush veto threat, and Congress was forced into a compromise many thought unpalatable.

For the most part, the bill does not contain policy changes that were not in either House- or Senate-passed bills, and policy riders previously included that drew White House opposition were mostly removed.

"While the administration remains concerned by several provisions in the bill, the Congress appears to have removed the most egregious policy riders from the bill," the White House said in its official statement on the measure.

One lobbyist following the process joked that the Democrats were handing a weakened president a significant win by bending to his will on so many levels.

"The Democrats are doing for Bush what the Baltimore Ravens did for the Miami Dolphins on Sunday," he said, referring to the Dolphins' first victory in 14 games this season.

Democrats did succeed in reversing the most severe of Bush's proposed budget cuts, adding about $6 billion to Bush's request for health care, housing, social services and education programs.

And on the policy front, they were successful in blocking a proposed pilot program allowing Mexican trucks to travel widely inside the United States, for example, as well as a GOP-backed amendment to bar the government from suing employers who try to enforce English-only workplace rules.

But on issues ranging from loosening restrictions on aid to overseas family-planning groups to easing the Cuba travel embargo to allowing the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, Democrats felt forced to back down. And that is just on riders that were included in previously approved appropriations bills.

A host of matters unrelated to appropriations surfaced in the final negotiations, in some cases only getting resolved in the final hours before the bill was filed early Monday morning.

For example, Democrats backed off an attempt to add House-passed legislation, backed by GOP moderates like Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, to bar employers from discriminating based on an individual's genetic information.

Labor issues were particularly troublesome for the White House, with Democrats seeking to reward one of their core constituencies.

Late Sunday night, a provision was jettisoned from the final measure that would have barred the Labor Department from enforcing new financial reporting requirements unions deem onerous.

Currently, union members are required annually to fill out a two-page form certifying their personal financial dealings with any company represented by their union.

Under new rules being promulgated by the administration, employees would be required to submit vastly expanded information on their finances, including on things like home improvement loans they got from a bank that does business with a company that employee's union represents.

Critics call the rules invasive, but the Labor Department says it will "enhance union integrity" by strengthening conflict-of-interest reporting.

Also failing to make the cut was House-passed legislation to establish minimum collective bargaining standards that states must provide public safety workers.

The White House was considering a veto threat if the omnibus contained the measure, GOP officials said, because they say it would curtail emergency management agencies from effectively deploying their personnel.

United Parcel Service Inc. and the Teamsters Union failed in a bid to reclassify a unit of FedEx as a ground shipper rather than an air carrier, which would make it subject to the same federal labor law as UPS.

Bringing FedEx under the umbrella of the National Labor Relations Act, rather than the Railway Labor Act, would make it easier for its employees to form unions, the argument goes.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Oberstar included the language in the House-passed FAA reauthorization bill, which has stalled although it could move early next year.

Another holdover from the FAA debate, language requiring the agency and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to go back to the bargaining table on pay and work rules, was blocked.

Various other late bids were blocked.

Airlines failed in an attempt to block Transportation Department-proposed caps on flights in and out of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, which were designed to stem rampant delays and congestion.

An effort to reinstate the "Byrd Amendment," named after its chief sponsor, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., also fell flat.

First enacted as part of a fiscal 2000 omnibus bill, the law redistributed anti-dumping duties on imports to domestic manufacturers.

The World Trade Organization ruled the law illegal in 2002 and Congress repealed it as part of the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act.

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