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Congress Sends $8.6B Disaster Relief Bill to the President

By John E. Yang and Helen Dewar
The Washington Post

Congress approved an $8.6 billion disaster relief bill Thursday, sending it to President Clinton for a promised veto over two GOP policies included in the measure.

The House voted 220 to 201 to pass the compromise bill just moments after the Senate approved it on a 67-to-31 roll call.

The legislation, with its $5.4 billion for 35 states recently hit by floods, tornadoes, mudslides and other natural disasters and $1.9 billion for peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and the Middle East, could be delivered to the White House as soon as Friday. Clinton has vowed to send it right back with a veto message.

"This bill is going to go down to the White House," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D. "My hope is that the Republicans will keep the car running" for the return trip.

Republicans countered that the president should accept the bill.

"I don't believe either one of these provisions is worth a fight," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La., said of the two issues Clinton opposes. "We're sending the president a bill he can sign," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, adding that if he does not, he must accept responsibility for the consequences.

Clinton has vowed to veto the legislation over two technical but politically consequential matters unrelated to the heart of the bill.

One would ban the Census Bureau from using a statistical technique, which Republicans say is unreliable, to compensate for suspected undercounting of inner-city blacks and Hispanics.

Because the census is used to determine congressional districts, that question could have a significant impact on which party controls the House after the 2000 head count.

The other policy would prevent government shutdowns such as those that marked the budget battles two years ago, for which the GOP got most of the blame.

Thursday's debates reflected the partisan acrimony that has marked the measure's difficult path through Congress.

Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the House Appropriations Committee's top Democrat, said GOP leaders are "putting political considerations above the needs of the American people."

Democrats sought political advantages of their own, with Daschle using a satellite hookup so reporters could interview Brenda S. Barger, the mayor of Watertown, S.D., and businesswoman Jamie Edwards about the city's extensive flood damage and hear their appeals for prompt action.

Asked if Clinton should sign the bill despite objections to the policy add-ons, Barger said Congress should instead send him a bill he can sign.

The bill also includes $76 million for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and $240 million to continue Supplemental Security Income benefits to an estimated 440,000 elderly, blind or disabled legal immigrants until Sept. 30.

Earlier this week, one contentious issue was resolved when Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, dropped a proposal that would have made it easier to build roads across federal lands. Instead, Stevens and the administration agreed to set up a bipartisan commission to study the issue.