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Congress passes Interior spending bill; Clinton gains "Land Legacy" program

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Five days into the new fiscal year, Congress gave final approval Thursday to an $18.8 billion Interior Department spending bill that includes a land conservation program the White House had made a priority.

The bill, approved in the Senate by a vote of 83-19 late Thursday, is just the fourth of 13 budget measures that have passed both houses of Congress. Although the new fiscal year began October 1, Congress approved a continuing resolution last week to keep federal operations running through October 14.

The Interior Department measure also provides $8 million to create and maintain a heating oil reserve for the northeastern United States this winter. The reserve -- which will hold about 2.8 million gallons of heating oil in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut -- is designed to prevent heating oil prices from spiking. It amounts to roughly a two-week supply for the region.

But the mainstay of the measure is a $12 billion commitment over the next six years for the federal government to buy and maintain environmentally sensitive lands, including wetlands, coastal areas and endangered forests. But the White House won passage of the "Lands Legacy" program only after agreeing to let Congress decide which lands to purchase each year.

The Interior bill also includes $1.8 billion in emergency funding to help alleviate the costs of this summer's western wildfires, as well as a rare increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, a program whose budget had stagnated in recent years under the Republican leadership in Congress.

Federal funding for the arts, at $98 million next year, received a $7 million increase over its 2000 budget. But the increase is considerably less than the $52 million the Clinton administration had sought.

Congress planned to send another measure -- the energy and water spending bill -- to the president, despite his threat to veto a provision that would block administration plans to alter the flow of the Missouri River.

Republicans were confident the veto would damage Democrats in the bellwether state of Missouri, where they say most residents oppose the administration's proposal.

"If the president does the wrong thing and vetoes the bill, I'll make sure the Missourians, Iowans, Nebraskans, Kansans know that it was the Clinton-Gore team that took away their flood protection," vowed Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri.

House and Senate negotiators are also nearing completion on an agriculture appropriations bill, which contains two controversial measures: lifting food and medicine sanctions for Cuba and allowing the reimportation of prescription drugs so that U.S. customers may buy them at a lower cost.

Democrats were unhappy with some of the specifics in each of those measures, but Republicans maintain they have the votes to pass the legislation over their objections.

Appropriators also said they were also close to finishing spending bills for the District of Columbia and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development -- perhaps by the end of the week.

Issues that remain to be resolved include school construction and other education funding; debt relief for poor countries; and restrictions on funding for the U.S. lawsuit against tobacco companies still remain.

Congress had hoped to adjourn by October 6 so members could concentrate on the fall election.

 
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