Senate unlikely to get consent for omnibus spending bill

Senate leaders are unlikely to gain unanimous consent to approve the $820 billion fiscal 2004 omnibus appropriations package next Tuesday, following expected House passage a day earlier.

Barring a unanimous consent agreement, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., will seek an agreement with Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., for a date to consider the measure. If no deal is struck, Frist then would be forced to file a cloture motion on the measure that would ripen as early as Jan. 20 when the Senate reconvenes, GOP aides said. President Bush is expected to deliver his State of the Union speech that day, although protocol details are still being worked out.

Frist was expected to meet with Daschle Wednesday to discuss plans for handling the omnibus. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Wednesday urged colleagues not to object to a unanimous consent request on the omnibus, citing the negative effects on veterans' health care and other priorities.

But the measure faces continuing objections from GOP budget hawks, including Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as Democrats livid about concessions to the White House on media ownership and overtime compensation rules, and to the gun lobby on a provision that would require the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to destroy firearms sales records within 24 hours.

House Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf, R-Va., signed the conference report -- except for the firearms provision. Among Democrats, only House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Daniel Inouye of Hawaii signed the conference report, as did Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Tom Harkin of Iowa, despite his outspoken opposition to the overtime changes. Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., also signed the report despite the provision's removal, which he fought vigorously.

Iowa would receive $7 million in so-called "Harkin grants" for school repairs and $1 million for free fruits and vegetables to decrease junk food consumption in schools, among other earmarks. Harkin had to weigh "the good, bad and outrageous," a spokeswoman said.

The measure also contains $3 million for the Hawaii Hydrogen Center for Development and Deployment of Distributed Energy Systems -- sought by Inouye and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, for inclusion in the stalled energy bill. They voted to support the filibuster on that measure.

Meanwhile, several House Republicans, led by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., are calling on Bush to veto the omnibus. Musgrave is circulating a letter to send to Bush early next week which a spokesman said has attracted interest from a few other offices. The spokesman cited earmarks such as $200,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and $90,000 for Olive Fruit Fly Research in Montpellier, France, as items that should be removed.

"There's a lot of stuff in here that Republicans who support lower taxes and less government have real problems with," the spokesman said.