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Senate leaders urge colleagues to pass omnibus spending bill

Facing the distinct possibility the fiscal 2004 omnibus appropriations bill will go down to defeat next week, Senate GOP leaders and Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, have ratcheted up pressure on wavering senators to support the $820 billion measure.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have been working the phones for days, speaking directly to senators on both sides of the aisle to gauge support. Frist has spoken regularly with Stevens and met Wednesday with Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten to discuss strategy. Senate aides said GOP leaders remain well short of the 60 votes required to avoid a filibuster, although several senators had not yet been contacted.

In a letter to senators last week containing lists of projects in their states, Stevens urged the bill be passed, citing "critical needs" for fiscal 2004 that a long-term continuing resolution--which House GOP leaders have threatened if the omnibus is defeated--would not address.

"Attached you will find a list of projects that may be of particular interest to you," Stevens wrote Jan. 6. "The omnibus will not only fund these important priorities for your state, it will also fund programs like agriculture, veterans medical care, and education."

Frist was in New Hampshire Thursday, but aides were drafting a letter to senators urging them to vote for the omnibus. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Thursday afternoon said through a spokesman he wanted Congress to finish the fiscal 2004 spending bills, not reopen them.

"There are two options--the fiscally responsible omnibus that has already passed the House or a bare-bones continuing resolution through the end of the year that spends at last year's levels," DeLay said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who will vote against cloture, has said he would not make the omnibus a test of party loyalty, although GOP aides say they suspect he has privately lobbied Democrats against the bill. Daschle's office confirmed he is indeed lobbying his colleagues. However, Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., whose home state would receive $100 million in earmarks according to a Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis released Thursday, is said to be on the fence. His office did not respond by presstime.

Daschle is expected to lose the support of conservative Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., as well as Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Transportation-Treasury Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash. Inouye has taken credit for $485 million worth of federal funds for his state in the fsical 2004 bill, and according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Washington would receive $373 million in earmarks.

The problem lies on both sides of the aisle, as Commerce Chairman John McCain may not be alone among GOP opponents. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also may oppose the bill over fisheries language inserted by Stevens, and Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., also is threatening a "no" vote due to removal of language overturning the Cuba travel ban and a provision delaying by two years country-of-origin labeling for meat and produce. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., is among those who received Stevens' letter, but a spokeswoman said he had not decided yet whether to support the omnibus. Meanwhile, conservative groups including the Club for Growth, National Taxpayers Union and American Conservative Union today said they would hold Senate Republicans accountable at the polls if they support the bill, including Frist--who is scheduled to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference banquet next Friday.