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Senate passes a $109 billion spending bill

WASHINGTON—The Senate defied a rare presidential veto threat Thursday and passed a $109 billion emergency spending bill for Iraq and hurricane-ravaged states that's also loaded with money for farmers, fishermen and shipbuilders.

Twenty-one Republicans voted against the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to protest the additional spending. President Bush wants the special-interest provisions removed from the bill so it matches his $94.5 billion request.

The 77-21 vote was an exercise in legislative winks and nudges, as many senators who voted for the extra spending have pledged to sustain Bush's veto. Senators and members of the House of Representatives now will head into difficult negotiations to reconcile the Senate bill with a version the House passed, which provided only $92 billion.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., declared the Senate bill "dead on arrival." White House spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated Bush's veto threat. House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House would defeat any bill that "spends $1 more than what the president asked for. Period."

The Senate bill includes more than $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and nearly $30 billion for hurricane relief in Gulf Coast states. It also includes $2.6 for pandemic flu preparations and nearly $2 billion to enhance border security.

But the measure also contains billions of dollars for farmers in drought-stricken areas and to help the agriculture industry deal with the rising costs of fuel. Lawmakers also inserted spending provisions, called earmarks, for special projects from California to New England.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman, conceded that the Senate version would be trimmed in negotiations with the House but urged the president not to veto the bill if it emerged at a higher amount.

"I would hope there would be negotiating room on the part of the White House," Cochran said.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, was blunter, virtually daring Bush to cast his first veto. "OK, have at it. Have at it, Mr. President," he said.

One of the biggest and most controversial earmarks is $700 million to relocate a railroad in Mississippi. The bill includes $500 million to help shipbuilder Northrop Grumman recover hurricane losses, about $20 million to shore up river levees in California and $20 million to help New England fishermen recover from last year's outbreak of red tide, which are toxic algae that can ruin shellfish beds.

During the past two weeks, the bill was a battleground for fiscal discipline, pitting fiscal conservatives against members of the Appropriations Committee and the lawmakers who sponsored the special-interest provisions. In the end, the fiscal conservatives succeeded in stripping only one $15 million add-on from the bill.

At the same time, 35 Republican senators signed a letter to Bush promising to sustain his veto if he casts it. Frist and Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were among them. Still, many of those 35 voted for the final bill.

"The bottom line is that I'm excited they're going to sustain the president's veto," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., an earmark opponent. "They may disagree with individual items we're bringing up. But having their signature on that letter gives us a very strong hand going into conference" with the House.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who led the largely unsuccessful effort to strip earmarks from the Senate bill, predicted that most would be removed in the coming House-Senate negotiations. He said that many senators who voted for the bill did so only to avoid political attacks for voting against a war-spending bill.

The House and Senate agreed that it's time for the White House to stop asking for emergency spending bills to cover the costs of the war. Because they're designated as emergencies, such bills are allowed to skirt the Senate procedural obstacles that usually apply to spending bills that exceed budget caps. As a result, emergency bills are popular vehicles for earmarks that otherwise would face procedural challenges.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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