Senate Can’t Agree on $410-Billion Spending Bill

March 6, 2009 - 6:14 AM
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Washington (AP) - The Senate, tied up in a fight over a huge omnibus appropriations bill, will have to pass a stopgap spending measure Friday in order to avoid a partial government shutdown.
 
The Senate worked late on Thursday trying to pass the $410 billion appropriations bill, which was denounced by Republicans -- and a handful of Democrats -- who said it was bloated and filled with wasteful, pork-barrel spending projects. Democratic leaders were forced to postpone a final vote on the measure until Monday under pressure from GOP senators who complained that Democrats hadn't allowed them enough opportunities to offer amendments.
 
With the vote postponed, senators need to pass a stopgap spending measure by midnight Friday to prevent a shutdown of most domestic agencies. Midnight is when a temporary law that keeps the government in business, mostly at 2008 levels, expires.
 
Before canceling the vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was one vote short of the 60 needed to close debate and free the bill for President Barack Obama's signature.
 
Democrats and their allies control 58 seats, though at least a handful of Democrats oppose the measure over its cost or changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba. That meant Democrats needed five or six Republican votes to advance the bill.
 
None of the GOP's amendments is expected to pass, but votes on perhaps a dozen are now set for Monday night, Reid said.
 
The huge, 1,132-page spending bill awards big increases to domestic programs and is stuffed with pet projects sought by lawmakers in both parties. The measure has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.
 
The measure was written mostly over the course of last year, before projected deficits quadrupled and Obama's economic recovery bill left many of the same spending accounts swimming in cash.
 
And, to the embarrassment of Obama -- who promised during last year's campaign to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel ways -- the bill contains 7,991 pet projects totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the GOP staff of the House Appropriations Committee.
 
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's opponent in the presidential campaign, called the measure "a swollen, wasteful, egregious example of out-of-control spending" and again criticized Obama for pledging to sign the measure despite his earlier promises on such spending.
 
"It doesn't sound like he's willing to use his veto pen to back up his vow," McCain said.
 
The pet projects -- called earmarks -- run the gamut. They include $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., $238,000 to fund a deep-sea voyaging program for native Hawaiian youth, agricultural research projects, and grants to local police departments, among many others.
 
While earmarks have come under attack from conservative watchdog groups and cable television commentators, lawmakers in both parties seek them, arguing that they best know the needs of their states and home districts. Under a long-standing tradition, Republicans get about 40 percent of them since they are the minority party.
 
Several lawmakers took to the floor during the week to defend their projects, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who backed $1.7 million for pig odor research. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., promised $3.8 million to preserve and redevelop part of old Tiger Stadium to help revitalize a distressed area of Detroit.
 
By a 52-42 vote Thursday, Democrats cleared the way for the Obama administration to reverse a rule issued late in the Bush administration that says greenhouse gases may not be restricted in an effort to protect polar bears from global warming. Another Bush administration rule that reduced the input of federal scientists in endangered species decisions can also be quickly overturned without a lengthy rulemaking process.
 
The big increases -- among them a 21 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent increase for housing vouchers for the poor -- represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with President George W. Bush over money for domestic programs.
 
Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout, including a $2.4 billion, 13 percent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 percent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system.
 
Congress also awarded itself a 10 percent increase in its own budget, bringing it to $4.4 billion. But the House inserted a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.