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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

Congress OKs new spending as debt ceiling nears $9 trillion

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

WASHINGTON - Congress pushed the ceiling on the national debt to nearly $9 trillion yesterday, and the House and Senate promptly voted for major spending initiatives for the war in Iraq, hurricane relief, and education.

The House approved $92 billion in new money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for relief along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

The Senate adopted a $2.8 trillion budget blueprint that anticipates deficits greater than $350 billion for both this year and next. The spending blueprint, approved 51-49, little resembles President Bush's proposal last month for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The Senate's measure would break Mr. Bush's proposed caps on spending for programs such as education, low-income heating subsidies, and health research. All told, senators endorsed more than $16 billion in increases above Mr. Bush's proposed $873 billion cap on spending appropriated by Congress each year.

Senators earlier voted 52-48 to send Mr. Bush a measure that would allow the government to borrow an additional $781 billion and prevent a first-ever default on Treasury notes.

As a result, the government could pay for the war in Iraq without raising taxes or cutting popular domestic programs.

The budget blueprint advanced in the Republican-led Senate when Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu supported the plan after winning concessions to help her hurricane-damaged state of Louisiana and rest of the Gulf Coast.

She won inclusion of a proposal that could provide up $2 billion a year for levee and coastal restoration projects. The money would come from auctioning television airwaves to wireless companies and from potential oil lease revenues from exploration in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.

The Senate votes set up a confrontation with the House, which is certain to oppose the additional spending.

House Republicans will not release their budget until after next week's recess.

On a 348-71 vote, meanwhile, House Republicans and Democrats joined to pass the $92 billion measure for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Hurricane Katrina cleanup.

"Concerns about the deficit and spending are overridden by the urgent issues before us - supporting our troops and helping the hurricane victims," said Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.).

Nineteen Republicans, mostly fiscal conservatives, and 52 Democrats voted against the measure. "Not one more dime for this administration's ill-conceived, ill-advised, misguided and failed Iraq policy," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Ohio).

The bulk of the bill, $67.6 billion, would pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would boost to nearly $400 billion the total spent on the conflicts and operations against terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The bill also contains $19.2 billion for cleaning up and rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Katrina struck last summer. That would bring total hurricane-related spending to more than $100 billion.

However, Congress did not even vote on an amendment offered by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) that would have set up a special commission to review how previous money has been spent.

Republican leadership in the House of Representatives "would not allow a vote on the amendment, ruling that it was not germane to the debate," according to a statement Miss Kaptur's office issued yesterday afternoon.

Miss Kaptur likened the proposed commission to the Truman Committee, also known as the Select Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, which between 1941 and 1948 held 432 public hearings and 300 executive sessions to review government contracts and spending during World War II.

"This amendment would have allowed Congress to oversee exactly how the billions in taxpayer dollars are being spent in Iraq and in the Gulf Coast," Miss Kaptur said in the statement. "It remains critical that Congress curtail the opportunities for waste, fraud, and abuse in federal contracting."



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