Senate resumes long debate to finish fiscal 2003 budget

Senate appropriators are poised to finish work this week on the $390 billion fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations package, but they will still have to overcome a series of Democratic amendments designed to boost funds in the proposal.

A spokesman for Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said GOP leaders were working to limit the time of the debate this week, and could either work one or two late nights or remain in session most of the week to finish the massive bill and send it into a House-Senate conference. Frist's success, however, hinges on Democrats and their willingness to pare down existing amendments. The Frist spokesman acknowledged that Democrats are likely to offer "somewhere between four and 40" amendments. "The thinking is it will be closer to 40 than four, of course," he said. Senators have until Tuesday at 6 p.m. to file amendments.

Several amendments are currently pending on the floor, and a few could see votes later Tuesday. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., offered an amendment earlier today boosting funds for special education by $1.5 billion for fiscal 2003 only. Looking to protect his Republican colleagues from another difficult floor vote on education, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., later offered a second-degree amendment to the Dodd proposal that would also boost special education funding by $1.5 billion but offset it with a 0.4 percent across-the-board cut. The omnibus already contains a 3 percent, or $10 billion, across-the-board cut, which was used to pay for other education increases, as well as drought aid, election reform and a Medicare fix.

Other Democratic amendments pending include one by Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., requiring the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a new health-effects study on the Bush administration's latest, controversial clean air rule; by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, boosting funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to $2 billion; and by Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., on corporate expatriation.

Possibly the biggest amendment left to be discussed, however, is one sponsored by Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and others doubling the amount of drought aid in the bill to $6 billion. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., is distributing brown "Drought David" ribbons-based on the name he has given the current drought-to senators in the cloakroom Tuesday to draw attention to the amendment, which has not yet been scheduled for a floor vote.

The Senate was also slated to take up the confirmation of Tom Ridge as secretary of the Homeland Security Department Tuesday. Senate Republicans expect a limited debate on Ridge's nomination, followed by an overwhelming vote in favor of his confirmation, Frist's spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration raised a few more red flags in its statement of administration policy on the omnibus that also will take time to negotiate before a final House-Senate conference can be completed.

Notable among them: the bill's $31.8 billion level of highway funds. That level has broad support in both chambers, but the White House said in its statement that the level was "unsustainable" and would lead to a gas tax hike.

In addition, the administration balked at $2.2 billion in advanced appropriations for education as well as what it sees as insufficient funding for the maximum Pell Grant award authorized in the bill.

It also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency's budget had been underfunded by about $1 billion, and complained that the State Department's budget had been cut by $300 million, a mother-to-child AIDS prevention program by $150 million and that language for the new Homeland Security Department would hamstring the fledgling agency.