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Saturday, April 12

Congress approves $79 billion for war, homeland security

By Brian Tumulty | GNS

WASHINGTON - Congress approved a $79 billion spending bill Saturday to pay for the war in Iraq, homeland security and humanitarian relief that will be funneled through the State Department.

The 2003 emergency supplemental includes an extra 26 weeks of unemployment benefits for airline workers and employees of aircraft manufacturers. ``There are funds for homeland security that will go to all states and localities, with major help for my state of New York and New York City,'' said Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y. He was referring to an $800 million fund to protect high-risk, high-density urban infrastructure such as high-rise buildings, bridges and subways.

Another $2.2 billion was set aside for first responders, an increase of $230 million from the White House request but not as much as Democrats had fought to include.

In a compromise with the White House - which had sought unfettered discretion in dispensing humanitarian relief - Congress set aside $2.47 billion that will be funneled through the Foreign Assistance Act program, which is administered by the State Department.

``We all acknowledge that the president is the commander in chief and has the ultimate authority and responsibility,'' said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., noting that she preferred the original House language giving control of the humanitarian relief to the State Department.

The compromise allows the State Department to redistribute the money to other domestic agencies or to the Defense Department at the president's direction, provided Congress is notified five days in advance.

The largest share of money - $62.4 billion - goes to the Defense Department to cover the cost of the war. It includes $31.2 billion for operations and maintenance, $13.4 billion for personnel and $1.3 billion for procurement.

President Bush's request for unlimited leeway in spending almost all of the military funding was reduced to a $15.7 billion defense emergency response fund, christened the Iraqi Freedom Fund. As with the humanitarian relief money, the administration must give Congress five days notice before any funds are spent.

Congress also reduced by half the White House request for a $50 million fund for counter-terrorism training for foreign military forces.

Members of Congress said the bill would fully meet the military's needs and recognize the contributions of those on the front lines by increasing combat pay from $150 to $225 a month and the family separation allowance from $100 to $250 a month. And $100 million was set aside for the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide additional health services and disability compensation to veterans returning from the war.

``The big picture is that we have men and women who are giving the ultimate sacrifice and dying in Iraq,'' said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

DeLay commended House Republican and Democratic negotiators who successfully deleted all but five of the many nondefense-related items that the Senate had inserted in the bill.

Among the items removed were a provision for ginseng labeling; a land exchange in Nevada, $529,000 for local law enforcement expenses relating to a Rhode Island nightclub fire, and money for a dam in Vermont.

The Senate items that were retained included funding for a research lab in Ames, Iowa; assistance for catfish farmers, and language stating that wild seafood should be considered organic.

One of the most debated items was the $2.9 billion in aid for airlines, and whether unemployed airline workers should be given part of the money that was being targeted for their former employers.

During House-Senate negotiations Friday, lawmakers voted to support an amendment by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., to keep the Senate's provision for 26 weeks of additional unemployment benefits for airline workers and employees of aircraft manufacturing firms. The benefits take effect after the workers exhaust their regular 26 weeks of state unemployment insurance.

``That represented the minimum of economic justice that was required,'' Obey said.

On the Web:

Read more about House details on the wartime supplemental report.