By Paul Kane and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
The Senate last night approved a $555 billion omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year, shortly after bowing to President Bush's demand for $70 billion in unrestricted funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democrats had vowed only weeks ago to withhold any Iraq-specific money unless strict timelines for troop withdrawal were established, but they instead chose, on a 70 to 25 vote, to remove what appeared to be the final obstacle to sending the spending bill to the White House, where Bush has indicated he will sign it. Senators then passed the omnibus bill, 76 to 17.
The House must still approve the revised spending bill, with the unrestricted war funds, but Democrats there concede the measure is likely to pass behind strong Republican support.
Senate leaders also fell short on finding a way to pay for changes to the alternative minimum tax. The chamber had already passed a measure to keep 23 million households, most of them upper-middle-income, from being hit with the AMT next year, but many House Democrats sought to offset the loss of $50 billion to the Treasury from the tax "patch," and so senior Democrats offered up a series of tax increases to cover the cost.
Republicans and some Democrats held firm against any tax increase, though, and the proposal, with a vote of 48 to 46 in favor, fell far short of the 60 votes needed to pass. The House now appears ready to pass the AMT measure without any offset.
Also, senators approved both a six-month delay in a scheduled 10 percent pay cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients and a temporary extension of a children's health insurance program.
With yesterday evening's flurry of activity after days of internal battles on their endgame strategy, Democrats hope to wrap up their first year in power on both sides of the Capitol since 1994. With Iraq war funding dominating debate and overshadowing other achievements, Bush could claim another victory over rivals who took power on an antiwar platform.
"When is enough enough?" asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who supported an amendment that would have required troop withdrawal from Iraq and a cutoff of combat funds within nine months. "I urge my colleagues to vote against this gigantic blank check."
But Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the retiring minority whip, countered that "we're doing the right thing here for our men and women in uniform." By beating back the Democratic restrictions on Bush's war powers, Lott said, "we're going to get this omnibus bill done in a way we can be proud of."
The troop-withdrawal amendment, offered by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), failed on a 24 to 71 vote. None of the four Democrats running for president -- Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) -- returned from the campaign trail for the vote, which failed for the third time this year to clear a 60-vote hurdle imposed by Republicans.
A nonbinding Democratic alternative that would have redeployed forces to counterterrorism missions and Iraq border security also failed.
"A political solution is the only way to end the conflict, and ending the conflict is in [the Iraqi government's] own hands," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and sponsor of the nonbinding amendment.
Republicans then moved to pass an amendment that would take $31 billion for Afghanistan operations -- the only war-related funding in the House bill approved Monday -- and add almost $40 billion. The entire sum would be allocated for Pentagon use for any operation in its anti-terrorism efforts.
On that vote, 48 Republicans were joined by 21 Democrats and one independent in supporting Iraq funds, with 23 Democrats, one independent and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) opposed.
Before leaving for a two-week Thanksgiving recess, House and Senate Democrats had pledged not to give Bush any Iraq funding without withdrawal timelines. But the president threatened to veto the appropriations measures needed to keep the federal government running unless he received war funds.
Even if Democrats approved a resolution to keep the government functioning temporarily, they faced the prospect of shuttered military facilities and furloughs for military employees as the Pentagon threatened to move funds from other accounts to finance the war.
Democrats privately acknowledged weeks ago that Bush would get some Iraq funding, but hoped to secure $11 billion to $22 billion in additional domestic spending on the omnibus measure, which rolled 11 of the 12 spending bills into one huge package.
After a veto threat 10 days ago on the additional spending, Democrats pared down the figure to Bush's level but added about $11 billion in emergency funding for initiatives they supported, including drought relief in the Southeast and veterans' health care. A final dispute between House and Senate Democrats involved how much Iraq funding Bush would receive, setting up the compromise under which the House would first act only on Afghanistan funds.
But even that compromise almost unraveled yesterday as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faced a revolt from fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" House Democrats, who demanded that Senate Democrats try again to fully offset the AMT "patch" with a revenue increase. That prompted the speaker to temporarily hold the massive spending bill on her side of the Capitol until Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to hold another vote on the AMT.
This time, the proposal was to pay for the tax fix by closing a loophole that allows hedge fund managers to defer compensation in offshore tax havens, but it also fell well short of passage in the Senate.
The House is scheduled to vote today on a proposal to patch the AMT without paying for it, which would break the Democrats' pledge not to approve any tax measure or mandatory spending increase that adds to the federal budget deficit. The Blue Dogs are still passionately holding out on the bill, threatening parliamentary tactics today to prevent Congress from leaving Washington until the Senate and the president agree to pay for an AMT fix.
"Sometimes you have to be willing to stand and take on a fight, even against someone who has all the advantages," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.). "We're in a box. The president has a veto. The Senate has a hidebound group of senators complicit with the president in protecting tax cheats. But if [George] Washington looked across the river, saw the Redcoats and turned tail, we wouldn't have the country we have today."
But even Senate Democrats were tired of the confrontation.
"When all is said and done, I'm quite confident that when New Year's Eve comes in, we'll have passed an unpaid-for AMT through the Congress," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). "I think even the Blue Dogs are going to want to go home for Christmas."
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.