Senate Defies Bush on Spending
Friday, May 5, 2006
The Senate ignored President Bush's veto threat yesterday and easily passed a $109 billion emergency spending bill for war and hurricane recovery costs that also brimmed with favors for farmers, the fishing industry, and the states of Hawaii and Rhode Island.
The two-week debate that preceded yesterday's 77 to 21 final vote was marked by an election-year surge in targeted spending on behalf of constituents and special interests, despite repeated warnings by fiscal conservatives about a swollen budget deficit.
The Senate added money to rebuild a highway in Hawaii; protect riverbanks in California; upgrade a hurricane barrier in Providence, R.I.; and compensate New England shell fishermen for their losses from a red tide outbreak. The Senate also took steps to make farming less risky by offering compensation for virtually any scourge, including drought, flood, wildfires and pestilence.
The next step for the Senate is a potentially rancorous final negotiating session with the House, where Republican leaders greeted the Senate package with scorn. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called it "dead on arrival" and said his chamber "has no intention of joining in a spending spree."
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) promised a final bill that does not spend "one dollar more than what the president asks for, period."
If the threats hold, senators will have to accept a final bill that is nearly $15 billion less than the legislation approved yesterday. The House package, which passed March 16, came in slightly below Bush's original $92.2 billion request, at $91.9 billion.
The Senate bill arrived on the floor last week at $106.5 billion but grew through a series of amendments. Bush did sign off on one additional measure, $2.3 billion for pandemic flu preparations.
The bill's original intent was to provide funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to help Mississippi and Louisiana rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Ever since the Iraq invasion in March 2003, the administration has insisted on paying war-related expenses through ad hoc supplemental spending bills. It contends that the conflicts are temporary and that military costs cannot be anticipated well enough to be included in the regular budget process.
Lawmakers in both parties have protested this approach, which they said has disguised the war's true fiscal impact. As the process becomes routine, another danger is that the supplementals will become must-pass magnets for unrelated pet projects.
"In emergency legislation, we have a lot of things that really aren't emergencies," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who led a largely futile fight to strip extraneous provisions from the bill. "I think we as a body ought to look at that and use self-discipline."
The Senate bill would provide $70.9 billion to the military to pay for personnel, operation and maintenance, and procurement costs, along with diplomatic efforts such as democracy-building programs. The Senate more than doubled a $58 million request for peacekeeping assistance in Sudan, providing $173 million.
Bush requested $19.8 billion in hurricane-related assistance, and the Senate responded with $28.9 billion -- adding projects large and small. Most of the money would go to flood-control projects, levee repairs, relief for residents and community rebuilding.
Coburn had singled out several of the hurricane-related projects as not urgently needed, but he had formidable foes: Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former Senate majority leader, whose house in Pascagoula was destroyed in the storm.
As if to underscore the point, Lott's news release after the vote highlighted the three projects that Coburn had targeted: $700 million to move a CSX railroad line, which now hugs the coastline; about $140 million in compensation for the Northrop Grumman Corp. shipyard in Pascagoula for uninsured losses; and $176 million to rebuild the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport.
After the vote, Coburn said he is counting on Bush to deliver on his veto promise. "Taxpayers want us to be serving in a spirit of service and sacrifice, not searching for new ways to raid the public treasury," he said.
One challenge in the House-Senate conference will be striking -- or at least chipping away at -- around $4 billion in agricultural aid. The money is widely supported by farm-state lawmakers from both parties, although the White House strongly opposes it. In its April 25 veto threat, the administration noted that "in 2005, many crops had record or near-record production, and U.S. farm sector cash receipts were the second highest ever."
Still, it is an election year. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who is being targeted by Democrats, issued a statement that called on his colleagues to "restore fiscal discipline to the Congress" while noting that he voted for the bill.
Burns is a leading champion of the agricultural aid. He urged House and Senate negotiators to retain the aid but to remain within Bush's limit. "That's going to take a sharp pencil," Burns noted.