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Representatives Pass Largest Appropriations Bill in History

By Jim VandeHei and Juliet Eilperin

The House Thursday hastily approved a 3,000-page, $397.4 billion spending package, the largest appropriations bill ever, loaded with money for special-interest projects covering everything from shiitake mushrooms to beaver management.

While few members knew exactly what was in the bill, the House voted 338 to 83 to provide immediate spending increases for programs such as national defense, homeland security, space exploration and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Farmers, ranchers and students in poor school districts are big winners too. To make room for some of the new spending, the budgets for Treasury and Commerce were cut.

The Senate will approve the package as early as Friday, lawmakers say. With the threat of war in Iraq looming, President Bush has told lawmakers he will seek another $20 billion for the Pentagon soon. Democrats, meanwhile, vow to tack more spending for homeland security onto the president’s request.

The $397.4 billion bill touches virtually every part of government and covers fiscal year 2003, which began Oct. 1. Democrats, still stinging from their losses in November’s elections and searching for issues to run on in 2004, accused Republicans of short-changing homeland security as country is on high alert for possible terrorist attacks.

Democrats also complained about several environmental provisions, including one approving money for “pre-drilling” in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and another clearing the way for more logging on federal land.

But Republicans, flexing the political muscles built by controlling the White House and both branches of Congress, beat back Democratic efforts to push spending even higher. While Vice President Dick Cheney played a key role in the final talks, the White House didn’t get everything it sought.

Republicans spent billions of dollars more than Bush wanted and, as part of the final deal, blocked funding for research for a Pentagon project -- called Total Information Awareness -- designed to monitor Internet e-mail and commercial databases as a way to track terrorists. Worried the project would invade Americans’ privacy, conferees restricted further Pentagon research without first extensively consulting with Congress.

The project was started more than one year ago by former national security adviser John Poindexter, who was convicted of lying to Congress about weapons sales to Iran and illegal aid to Nicaraguan rebels. His conviction was later reversed because he had been given immunity for the testimony in which he lied.

In the end, House and Senate negotiators tucked in enough provisions sought by influential lawmakers to win passage easily.