Work begins on omnibus spending bill with across-the-board cut

After being delayed several days by a dispute over a committee organizing resolution, Senate appropriators brought the 11 remaining fiscal 2003 appropriations bills to the Senate floor Wednesday night, beginning what probably will be an arduous and time-consuming debate that could last into next week.

To mitigate a growing list of politically charged amendments by Democrats, appropriators decided late Wednesday afternoon to include within the $385 billion package of 11 appropriations bills a 1.6 percent, across-the-board cut totaling about $6 billion. That money would be redirected so $3.1 billion would go to drought aid, $1.5 billion to election reform and another $1.6 billion to a Medicare fee fix.

The across-the-board cut allows the administration to stay within its prescribed budget totals, but also allows both parties to say they secured extra money for those high-priority items. A Senate appropriations aide said the change reflected the growing acknowledgment that to get an agreement on 2003 spending, these programs would have to receive some type of cash infusion.

Also, the administration reportedly believes that nearly four months into the fiscal year, billions in the original budget request will not be able to be spent. That means more room to include an across-the-board cut to pay for other high-priority, and politically necessary, items.

In addition, appropriators included about $825 million in the package to pay for the cost of fighting last year's forest fires. The amendment, which has been approved by the administration, actually pushes the total for the omnibus package closer to $386 billion.

Thus the total for 2003 would be $751.3 billion, as opposed to the former $750.5 billion threshold insisted upon by the White House.

But it is unlikely that the last-minute changes will completely placate Democrats, who were preparing Wednesday to offer amendments totaling some $20 billion. Wednesday night, incoming Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., brought to the floor the first of the major Democratic amendments, to boost homeland security funding by nearly $5 billion.

No vote was expected on that amendment until Thursday. Democrats then plan to proceed to amendments boosting education spending in the omnibus by nearly $7 billion.