WASHINGTON - Timber payments to rural county governments will likely be extended for one year, after both houses of Congress approved the measure Thursday as part of a bill to fund the Iraq war.
In a press conference Thursday morning, President Bush indicated he would sign the bill, but said he still opposed bundling unrelated domestic spending with money for troops. Democrats added $17 billion of domestic spending, including $425 million for timber payments, to the $120 billion Iraq bill.
"We were also successful in removing billions in unrelated domestic spending that many of the Democrats were insisting on," Bush said. "I wanted to remove even more."
The county timber payments program, created in 2000 to offset declining timber revenues that helped fund local schools and governments, has been in limbo since it expired last year. Since then, Oregon lawmakers have scrambled to extend the program and push for long- term funding.
Still, Oregon's delegation counted the vote as a victory - although only Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and Republican Sen. Gordon Smith voted in favor of the compromise funding bill.
The Senate voted 80-14 to send the bill to the president. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said he's glad the county payments will be extended for a year, but he couldn't vote for the bill's Iraq language.
"It seemed to me that this legislation was too close to a blank check on Iraq," Wyden said, after the vote.
He said the Senate was willing to pass a five-year extension to the county payments - although with bigger payouts to a few southwestern states - and said he wants to work with the U.S. House and president to find a long-term solution.
"How do you say there is an emergency in Iraq and not in Oregon?" Wyden said. "We've got to get some folks in the House and some folks in the White House."
'Relief is finally on its way'
Smith, a Republican, explained his yes vote.
"The gears of government grind slowly, but relief is finally on its way to Oregon's Coast and rural counties," Smith said, in a statement released by his office. "Our salmon fishermen and rural counties are in a tough spot, and this money will go a long way towards easing the hardship."
On Tuesday, Smith said requiring firm benchmarks is the key to improving the situation in Iraq. Smith couldn't be reached for comment on Thursday evening, but spokeswoman Lindsay Jackson said Smith voted for the supplemental bill to continue the troops' mission there.
"It's vital to get funding to the troops," Jackson said.
In the U.S. House, lawmakers voted on the bill in two parts: the domestic spending, including timber payments, and funding for the war. The domestic spending portion passed easily, 348-73, but the war funding vote moved on 280-142.
Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer, David Wu, Darlene Hooley and Peter DeFazio all voted against the Iraq funding, because it lacked timelines for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Next measure beginning of end?
Just after the vote, Blumenauer said he believes the next war funding measure, due this fall, will mark the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in the war.
"No matter what they report in September - we'll start pulling back," Blumenauer said.
In Central Oregon, Crook County received $2.4 million last year under the timber payments program. Des-chutes County got $2.8 million and Jefferson County got $521,551, according to an Association of Oregon Counties report issued in January.
On Monday, Deschutes County Administrator David Kanner said the county plans to eliminate two jobs and do fewer road projects this coming year without the roughly $3 million in federal timber dollars.
If Bush does sign the bill and the timber payment extension becomes official, Des-chutes County will pass a supplemental budget to divide that money, Kanner has said.