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SENATE panel OKs spending bill for defense, other programs


WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill Thursday providing an extra $6.5 billion this year for defense and other programs that ignores a House-approved cut in federal disaster funds.

The Democratic-controlled committee approved the measure by a voice vote a day after the House accepted its own version by 341-87.

One of the starkest differences between the two bills is the Senate's omission of a $389 million cut the House approved in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government's chief tool for disaster response. With Tropical Storm Allison having just pummeled the Gulf and East coasts, Democrats have attacked that reduction and the Bush administration has opposed it as well.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, saying Allison was ``the worst disaster that we ever had in Texas,'' made no attempt to add funds for rebuilding. But Hutchison, who has said at least $1 billion is needed, said she would work with other lawmakers on an amendment making money available that may be offered when the full Senate debates the bill.

The Senate measure, unlike the House bill, contains $100 million for what would be the first U.S. contribution to a fund the United Nations wants to start for battling AIDS in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Both versions of the bill go mostly toward the Pentagon's health care, energy and other costs, but also include money for cooling and heating aid for the poor and other domestic programs.

Democrats attacked the reduction in the House bill in hopes of causing an embarrassing setback for the GOP. But they lost 218-209 when they tried to derail the bill so the FEMA cut could be removed.

``This money will be needed,'' said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis. ``We might as well admit it now.''

Republicans said the agency would have more than $1 billion in reserve even if the cut were made. They included the reduction as part of President Bush's drive to limit spending.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, whose district was hurt by Allison's torrential rainfall, called the damage there disheartening.

``The only thing more disheartening is to hear the demagoguery about it on the House floor today,'' he said.

Even so, the FEMA cut has become harder for the GOP defend in the wake of Allison, which killed 50 people in six states and caused at least $4 billion in estimated damage in Texas alone.

Further undermining the Republican proposal were letters Hutchison sent to House members asking them to oppose the FEMA cut.

In addition, the White House budget office issued a statement on the bill saying it ``strongly opposes'' the FEMA cut, arguing it could preclude prompt assistance to storm victims.

In another partisan battle, the House voted 216-212 to reject a Democratic amendment that would have cut $30.5 million from the measure that they said would pay for a letter the IRS is preparing to notify people of forthcoming rebate checks.

As time ran out on that roll call, the vote was 218-208 to pass the amendment. But GOP leaders persuaded several Republicans to switch their votes to ``no'' at the last minute, including Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois.

Democrats said the letter is a political document because it prominently mentions Bush and promises more tax reductions ``for years to come.''

Republicans denied that the letters were politically motivated and said they would prevent confused taxpayers from deluging the IRS with questions.

By 362-65, the House rejected a conservative effort led by Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would have erased the FEMA cut in exchange for trimming 0.33 percent from non-defense, non-veterans programs in the rest of fiscal 2001, which runs through Sept. 30.

GOP leaders used House rules to block votes on Democratic amendments on price controls and other energy issues. An effort by Democrats to force votes on the amendments failed, 222-205.
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