Deal on omnibus spending bill nears

The fiscal 2003 omnibus bill is back on track today after a two-hour meeting among congressional leaders, top appropriators and authorizers, who secured, among other things, a tentative deal on drought aid, Amtrak funding and environmental provisions.

While not all of the details had been released as of Wednesday afternoon, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said he expects the omnibus to come to the House floor Thursday for final passage, with the Senate to follow Friday. "I don't see any obstacle to that now," said Young, exiting the meeting in the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

On the drought issue, Young said he expected the omnibus to include a $3.1 billion proposal that has been pending, in some form or another, for months on Capitol Hill. Details were still sketchy on the exact contents of the aid package, but sources said the money would not come out of a discretionary across-the-board cut and would instead be paid for with offsets from mandatory farm spending accounts and other agriculture programs.

A spokesman for the Senate Agriculture Committee said the deal would in "no way" affect programs that farmers rely upon annually. However, the deal is expected to address concerns that the original Senate proposal, drafted by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would not go to the neediest, drought-stricken farmers. Any new proposal would be able to accommodate more producers by more specifically targeting who should be eligible, sources said.

Overall, the bill should still total close to $400 billion, and would include a discretionary across-the-board cut of between 0.6 percent and 0.7 percent, according to Young. Most of that cut would boost funds for education programs.

In addition, Young said appropriators had secured a deal on funding for Amtrak, which would total $1.05 billion plus an extension on the life of a $100 million loan. Sources said objections raised by the Senate over the inclusion of language that would give the Transportation secretary the ability to veto unprofitable train routes had been "massaged," with final language still being worked out.

Also, sources said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, backed down on controversial language that would have exempted federal forests in Alaska from a Clinton-era roadless designation rule.