Congress Approves Bill
by Matthew Daly, Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- A massive spending bill approved by Congress includes hundreds of millions of dollars for the Pacific Northwest for dozens of projects, including bailing out the beleaguered groundfish fleet and expanding railroad service.
The $397.4 billion measure, which President Bush is expected to sign, would increase the Bonneville Power Administration's borrowing authority by $700 million and pump $2 billion into the Hanford nuclear cleanup.
It also would allocate $90 million for recovery of Pacific Coast salmon and hundreds of millions for a variety of transportation and infrastructure improvements, including $30 million to expand the Sounder Commuter Rail service in the Seattle area; $21.7 million to remove dams from the Elwha River; and $70 million to extend light-rail service to north Portland.
The House and Senate approved the measure a week ago today, 4-1/2 months into the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The bill would fund most non-defense programs for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Within hours, members of Congress — including some who voted against the bill — claimed credit for a host of items important to individual districts. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, for instance, touted $3 million for the Washington State Meth Initiative, which combats methamphetamine abuse in Southwest Washington and other parts of the state.
Baird was one of five Northwest lawmakers — all Democrats — who voted against the measure.
Baird said he was appalled that House members had just a few hours to digest the 3,000-page bill, which weighed in at more than 30 pounds and was unavailable to most members until last Thursday morning. The House approved the plan that evening, and the Senate followed suit hours later.
"There were some good things in this bill — many of which I supported, like helping physicians with Medicare reimbursements — but common sense tells you there is no way you can do justice to the people you represent without study and debate on legislation," Baird said. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I believe you should read legislation before you vote on it."
But most lawmakers were in a celebratory mood. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., former chairwoman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on transportation, claimed credit for $210 million worth of transportation projects in Washington state.
Murray's office cited a long list of projects she has boosted as proof that her clout has not diminished, as some predicted when Democrats lost control of the Senate last fall.
"In the face of significant cuts" forced by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, "I am pleased to have maintained this critical federal funding for our state's urgent transportation, health-care and education needs," Murray said in a statement.
Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, touted a program targeting $4 million for the Forest Service to buy land near Snoqualmie Pass owned by Plum Creek Timber. The Cascades Conservation Partnership has been working for several years to buy the site along Interstate 90 and is supplementing the federal grant with private donations.
Partnership members were angry earlier this month when the Bush administration failed to include money for the project in its budget.
"Time is running out to acquire these lands, so this is welcome news," said David Atcheson, campaign director for the conservation group.
Representatives of the groundfish fleet were pleased at a $10 million allocation for a "buyback" program intended to cut the number of boats fishing for groundfish, pink shrimp and Dungeness crab by as much as 50 percent. There are 263 licensed boats off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.
The fishery was declared a disaster in 2000, and eight species, primarily rockfish, have been declared overfished. Drastic harvest reductions have been imposed to allow the fish to rebound.
The fishing industry won a $50 million government-backed loan for the program last year. The new bill would add a $10 million federal grant to supplement the loans.
The spending bill also provides an additional $700 million in borrowing authority for the Bonneville Power Administration. The Portland-based agency, which supplies about half the electricity used in the Northwest, wants to use the money to upgrade and expand its transmission system.
Given the agency's financial troubles, "I'm hopeful that BPA will put this $700 million to work in a way that prevents increasing rates on consumers," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, an advocacy group, called BPA's higher loan cap an unwarranted Valentine's Day gift from federal taxpayers.
"It's astounding that despite BPA's current lack of fiscal accountability, Congress would reward them with new borrowing authority," said Autumn Hanna, a senior policy analyst for the taxpayers group. "If BPA were a public company, they would be going bankrupt and their stockholders would revolt."
The spending bill also includes more than $2 billion for the continued cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation. The money will support a waste-treatment plant and other efforts along the Columbia River.
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