Welcome to Spend City

By Dana Milbank
Friday, March 17, 2006

There is no specific mention of a "Vote-a-Rama" in the Constitution, which is probably because the Framers could not have imagined what happened in the Senate yesterday: The chamber's 100 members gathered and, in a frenzy of legislative activity, did their darnedest to empty the Treasury.

It was the political equivalent of going on a shopping spree the same day you get a credit-line increase on your over-the-limit card. In the morning, the senators increased the federal debt limit by $800 billion, to $9 trillion -- that's with a T. In the afternoon came the Vote-a-Rama, a carnival in which the lawmakers took turns pitching scores of amendments to the 2007 budget measure, most calling for more money for favorite programs.

"The Republican Party is now principally moderate, if not liberal!" exulted Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), after the Senate -- including a majority of Republicans -- approved his budget-busting amendment to spend an extra $7 billion on domestic programs.

Just a week ago, GOP leaders gathered in Memphis and proclaimed the party's commitment to fiscal restraint; yesterday, the restraints came off. "All the talk in Memphis doesn't comport with reality," said Specter, savoring his victory in a leather armchair in the Senate press gallery. "I don't have any apologies to make for this 7 billion. I'm still not satisfied."

And why should he be? Yesterday was a big moment in the annals of congressional munificence. While the Senate was increasing the government's borrowing limit and growing the budget, the House was having a little Vote-a-Rama of its own, adding goodies to a $92 billion spending package to pay for Iraq and hurricane recovery.

Meanwhile, House members, facing a 5 p.m. deadline, scrambled to submit spending requests for their pet projects to the Appropriations Committee. By day's end, the committee had received 3,602 requests for a grand total of $14.9 billion.

Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.), a fiscal conservative, tried to limit the damage by cutting $19 billion in hurricane-recovery spending. He was clobbered, 332 to 89.

For congressional skinflints, it was that kind of day.

While both chambers were tossing out bags of cash, the National Republican Campaign Committee assembled a lunchtime briefing to talk about -- what else? -- money.

Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the House Republicans' campaign effort, began by announcing that the "Spring House Gala" dinner would raise $8 million. "We're just very pleased to see $8 million of hard money coming into our coffers," he said, adding: "The NRCC ended February with 20.8 million cash on hand. Meanwhile, our opponents are still carrying about 1.2 million in debt from the last cycle."

A pair of whiteboards left on display in the hallway -- near a row of "member calling suites" -- told a less happy tale. The tally showed a goal of $7.5 million for the dinner but pledges of only $3.1 million. As reporters took notes from it -- Reynolds, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Majority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio) had each raised $100,000 -- a Republican official, Ed Patru, intervened. "I've got to drop the board, guys," he said.

Of course, the amount the lawmakers were taking in was nothing compared with what they were giving out. In the House, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) managed to secure $50 million for peacekeeping in Darfur. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) persuaded his colleagues to pay $56 million "for repair of military exchanges" in his home state.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company