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White House, Congress finishing budget details

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House and congressional negotiators Wednesday were finishing details of a mop-up legislative package of budget bills, small tax breaks, and Medicare payments to health care providers needed to end Congress' lame duck session.

"I think we're home free," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens said. Congressional aides said they expected the package to be completed Thursday for final House and Senate votes on Friday, bringing the 106th Congress to a close.

The Alaska Republican said almost all issues have been resolved in the spending bills that have the subject of months of fighting between President Clinton and Congress.

Negotiators from other congressional committees still were working on details of a measure to be included in the end-of-session bill to restore more than $30 billion that had been cut from Medicare payments to health care providers.

The package also is expected to include $25 billion in tax breaks over 10 years to spur investment in poor areas, a priority for lame-duck Clinton and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

The $1.8 trillion federal budget that was due Oct. 1 has been caught up in wrangling over schools, immigration, and worker protections that forced Congress back into a rare post-election session.

On the day it finally became clear that Republican George W. Bush was the likely next president, the Republican Congress also was poised to end years of bickering with Democrat Clinton by sealing their last budget deal.

"The first thing we could do to facilitate a healing process is complete our work on the remaining legislation this week and leave town," Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said when asked how best to move on from the acrimony of the contested presidential election.

To appease conservative Republicans, negotiators have trimmed about $5 billion from spending bills that have climbed nearly $40 billion above limits that Congress set last spring.

About $4 billion of the cuts are to come from a bill covering labor, health and education that has been the main obstacle to finishing the budget.

The remaining $1 billion would come in roughly 0.2 percent across-the-board cuts from $540 billion worth of other federal programs including defense.

Fiscal hawks said the cuts did not go far enough, but they expected that lawmakers eager to end this Congress before the holidays will pass the bill easily.

"It's too much money, it's too many provisions. But you know this is the last Clinton deal we're ever going to have to cut. Help is on the way," Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, said in reference to Bush's apparent victory over Democrat Al Gore.

Even with the cuts, spending for labor, health and education will rise about $13 billion in fiscal 2001. But Republicans were guarding their boosts for medical research while Democrats were protecting their increases for schools.

The tentative deal will boost the Department of Education budget by $6.6 billion, or 18.5 percent, while adding $4.8 billion or 16 percent to the health and human services budget.

"We're very pleased that this education budget provides significant increases for key presidential priorities like class size and school repair," said Linda Ricci, spokeswoman for the White House budget office.

Programs to reduce class sizes would receive $1.6 billion in funding in fiscal year 2001, 25 percent more than a year ago. The two sides also agreed to earmark $1.2 billion for a new program to repair aging and decrepit schools.

Stevens said few of the measures that lawmakers tried to tack onto the last bill of the session had survived, and that he expected no last-minute issues to break a deal.

But Stevens is behind one potential deal-stopping measure still being negotiated.

He wants to block a federal ruling to restrict commercial fishing for pollock off the Alaska coast to protect declining populations of Steller sea lions that feed on the fish.

Stevens has said the rule would devastate the state's fishing industry. Environmentalists say the sea lion will vanish without protections.

"It is unacceptable to alter the application of the Endangered Species Act, but we've made it clear there are ways to protect the Steller sea lion and the Alaska fishermen," Ricci said.

Language also was being worked out on a measure that would help keep families together while illegal immigrants seek legal status. Democrats have backed off a broader plan pushed by the Latino community for amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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