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In Session : Congress

Spending Bill For Military Is Ripe For the Stuffing

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page A17

There's nothing more tempting in Congress than a must-pass bill.

The Senate this week takes up emergency spending legislation to keep military funds flowing to Iraq and Afghanistan. Because it's a bill for the troops, it is certain to end up on President Bush's desk, and that's why lawmakers will try to tack on their own pressing provisions.

Going against the flow, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wants to eliminate funding that he believes is not urgently needed. (David McDaniel, The Oklahoman--AP)

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The Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved an $80.6 billion package that also incorporates tsunami relief and foreign aid funding, including for Palestinians. The Senate bill is slightly smaller than the president's initial request and the version the House passed before the Easter recess.

Before it even left committee, the Senate bill was padded with member perks. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) added language to protect Northrop Grumman's Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula by prohibiting the Pentagon from selecting a single shipbuilder for the next-generation DD(X) destroyer. The bill also was good timing for Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who secured $66 million in emergency watershed protection for the southern portion of his state, which was devastated by floods earlier this year.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) announced he will seek $12 million to provide protection for judges, responding to a request by the Judicial Conference, a group that represents the federal judiciary. Kennedy said his amendment is in part a response to comments by members of Congress, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), that the senator said "have incited, or threatened to incite, violence against judges."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has kept a relatively low profile since losing the November presidential election but will return to the spotlight this week by offering a round of amendments aimed at beefing up military family benefits. One proposal would eliminate the distinction between combat and noncombat deaths and provide a common death gratuity of $100,000. Another would extend the length of time that widows and children may reside in military housing. Current law allows 180 days, which Kerry would stretch to a full year. And he wants to exempt Individual Retirement Accounts from penalties if service members withdraw money early for deployment-related expenses.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has said she will propose adding $2 billion in veterans' health benefits, while Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) wants to expand health care and education benefits for children of all service members killed on active duty. The DeWine amendment would be retroactive to October 2001.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) will go against the flow by attempting to strip out funds that he deems are not urgently needed. "If Social Security is in crisis, we can't afford to play games with the budget," Coburn spokesman John Hart said.

Still uncertain is whether senators will offer immigration law changes, a door opened by the House when it attached a bill to tighten state driver's license laws to its version of the spending legislation. Although a number of broader immigration bills are floating around the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and others would prefer to keep the spending bill free at least of anything related to illegal immigrants.

JUDICIAL RESTRAINT: All rhetoric to the contrary, the Senate actually does approve some federal judges. At 5 p.m. today, the Senate is scheduled to begin considering the nomination of Paul A. Crotty to be U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York. Democrats predict he will be approved by a wide margin and with the support of both New York senators, Democrats Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Crotty's nomination has been pending awhile. Democrats complain that Republicans are purposely not sending consensus judges to the Senate floor so that the confirmation rate doesn't increase. After Crotty's presumed approval today, the tally will be 205 judges confirmed since Bush was elected in 2000, with 10 not confirmed.

"They wanted to have just the bad judges on the floor to make us look obstructionist and let pressure mount toward a nuclear showdown," one senior Democratic Senate aide said.

Meanwhile, the judicial battle has flared up on an unlikely front: the Capitol tour circuit. At Frist's invitation, David Barton, author of a handbook called "Impeachment," in which he lays out the constitutional foundations for ejecting "overactive" federal judges, is scheduled to lead interested senators and their families around the Capitol this evening. Barton, founder of WallBuilders, which bills itself as a pro-family organization, specializes in the building's spiritual heritage and has conducted numerous such tours in the past.

Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that supports efforts by Democrats to block Bush judicial nominees they consider outside the mainstream, called Barton "a judicial intimidation activist" in a letter Friday that urged Frist to withdraw his sponsorship of the tour.

As of Friday afternoon, the number of confirmed participants was low, and one Republican aide speculated the tour could be canceled if interest doesn't grow by today.

CONNECTIONS: In Congress, being well connected doesn't necessarily mean being well positioned. At least that's a conclusion to be drawn from a new study of legislators' working relationships by a political science professor at the University of California at Davis.

James H. Fowler examined "the cosponsorship network of all 280,000 pieces of legislation proposed in the U.S. House and Senate from 1973 to 2004," according to his paper, "Who is the Best Connected Congressperson?" He noted each item's chief sponsor and co-sponsors, as well as "network measures of closeness, betweenness and eigenvector centrality." He concluded that the "best connected" House members are Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.). That might bring small comfort to Smith, who was stripped of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairmanship in January by House leaders who were irritated by his refusal to stick to their spending guidelines.

As for Fowler's "best connected" senators, the winners seem to have little in common in terms of political philosophy, legislative style or seniority. They are: John McCain (R-Ariz.), Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.).

THE WEEK AHEAD: The Senate plans to consider the emergency military spending bill, while the House will take up the bankruptcy bill and a permanent repeal of the estate tax. Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to consider the controversial nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations.

Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this column.

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