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Dispute over Steller sea lions could stall final spending bills

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A dispute over Alaskan Steller sea lions could stall final passage of the government's $1.8 trillion budget and the adjournment of the 106th Congress, both of which are expected Friday.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is angry at Clinton administration efforts to curb fishing of Alaskan pollock -- a main food source for the dwindling sea lion population. The administration blames the diminished food supply for the demise of the sea lions, while Stevens blames killer whales -- which eat them.

Sea lions
A dispute involving Alaskan Steller sea lions is holding up passage of the government's budget  

Stevens warned his colleagues the disagreement could keep Congress at work beyond Friday.

"Federal control of these two magnificent fisheries is not going to be approved by this senator," Stevens bellowed from the well of the Senate Thursday.

The fishing language is part of the massive Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill which is otherwise almost completed. Negotiations over workplace safety standards, school construction, and other contentious issues stalled the bill's progress for months. Spending bills for the Treasury Department, Postal Service and Legislative branch were also tied to agreements in the Labor/HHS bill.

The bill, which included a large boost in education spending, cleared a critical hurdle earlier this week when negotiators agreed to carve out about $5 billion from other parts of it.

Other matters were also negotiated late Thursday by congressional and White House negotiators anxious to wrap up spending approval for fiscal year 2001, which technically started October 1.

Final language over about $31 billion in payments to Medicare providers was still being written in the late afternoon. The payments are designed to make up for cuts in federal payments to healthcare providers in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act.

Negotiators were also working up final language on an immigration reform package that is expected to be adopted despite opposition from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

A tussle over Amtrak funding was also unresolved.

The bill also includes tax breaks designed to spur development of poor areas.

A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee said the committee hoped to finish the bill by the end of the day so it can be voted on Friday. If it is delayed, Congress may have to return over the weekend or come back next week to vote on final passage.


Friday, December 15, 2000



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