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Spending Bill Held Up by Tax Provision

But some top Republicans were less charitable. Speaking on the Senate floor Saturday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the tax-writing Finance Committee, called the provision an "outrage" and said it will "bring us back to the doorsteps of the days of Nixon, Truman and similar dark periods in our tax history when tax return information was used as a club against political enemies."

"It's simply representative of the way Congress is now operating," said Allen Schick, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "It shows on the one hand how easy it is to put something in [an omnibus bill] without anybody else knowing about it." Although this may look particularly egregious, he said, the giant bill also contains hundreds of other provisions that could not be enacted into law if they were offered as single bills requiring full debate and scrutiny in both houses.

Friday's Question:
It was not until the early 20th century that the Senate enacted rules allowing members to end filibusters and unlimited debate. How many votes were required to invoke cloture when the Senate first adopted the rule in 1917?

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Such huge bills, lawmakers acknowledge, represent a breakdown of the normal budget process. For the second time in three years, House and Senate Republicans, bitterly divided over the level of domestic spending, failed to agree on a budget blueprint, as required by law.

The impasse forced delays in drafting many of the spending bills, and when Congress returned last week from its election recess, it had yet to complete nine of the 13 annual appropriations bills. Seven of the spending bills had never been to the Senate floor for debate, one had never been to the House floor, and one funding the nation's nuclear weapons programs and Army Corps of Engineers water projects was still in a Senate subcommittee.

To overcome this problem, GOP leaders crammed all the remaining legislation into a single omnibus package that, under congressional rules, could not be amended.

It contained all the unfinished spending bills, along with three other pieces of major legislation -- the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act, the Snake River Water Rights Act, and the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.

Along with those measures, lawmakers and staffs added thousands of local projects benefiting home states and districts. Also included in the final bill was a major provision barring states from enforcing laws that require health care providers, hospitals, HMOs or insurers to pay for, provide or give referrals for abortion.

But when the measure was rushed to the floors of the two chambers Saturday, few members had read it. Lawmakers absent from the Capitol for weeks while campaigning for reelection returned for a brief lame-duck session to complete the work of the 108th Congress.

The secretive process, Schick noted, gives GOP leaders enormous power to add provisions that they or special interests might want, and to delete provisions that GOP factions or the White House find objectionable.

Frist, for example, ordered negotiators to accept the abortion provision, even though it had never gone to the Senate floor and was only in the House-passed version of the bill covering health appropriations. Senate opponents agreed not to block its consideration after Frist promised to schedule a vote soon on a bill drafted by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to repeal the provision.

GOP leaders also deleted provisions on overtime regulations and the outsourcing of government jobs despite support in both houses.

"It's not transparent, and it's a breakdown of legislative order," Schick said.

Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

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