Spending Bill Stalls in Senate, 1 Vote Shy of Breaking Filibuster

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

The Senate stalled action on a $410 billion spending bill that would fund much of the federal government for the current fiscal year amid resistance over the legislation's huge price tag and more than 8,500 pet projects.

Last night, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) canceled a final procedural vote that would have cleared the way for final passage and announced that debate will continue at least through Monday. Meanwhile, Reid said the Senate will consider further amendments, while he scoured for at least one more vote to reach the 60 needed to break a Republican-led filibuster.

The legislation combines the nine spending bills that Congress did not pass on schedule last year, amid a standoff on overall funding totals between Democratic leaders and President George W. Bush. The parties could agree only on sums for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

To avoid a veto showdown with Bush, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided to shelve the unresolved legislation until Barack Obama took office. Although the new president complained about $7.7 billion in earmarks in the bill, he is expected to sign it into law. If it does not pass the Senate next week, the federal government would continue operations at current funding levels.

In addition to providing generous budget increases across departments, the measure would make a series of significant policy changes. In a break with Bush policy, it would permit U.S. citizens to visit relatives in Cuba once a year instead of once every three years, and it would loosen rules on food and medicine exports to the island. The Cuba language cost Reid at least one Democratic vote, that of Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.).

In another reversal, it would provide for increased scientific input in endangered-species decisions. The bill also would tighten restrictions on the movements of trucks from Mexico.

One provision in the bill could jeopardize the District's private school voucher program by requiring congressional renewal of the plan for it continue beyond the 2009-2010 school year. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press yesterday that he supports continuing the tuition payment program, which gives poor children access to private schools.

Some Republicans, and a handful of Democrats, object to the bill because of its total cost. Others are riled by the earmarks and are urging Obama to reject the package in keeping with his campaign pledge to clean up the spending process.

"He ought to go ahead and veto this bill," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "And Republicans on Capitol Hill will work with him to sustain his veto."

But the combined force of Obama and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who have long railed against earmarks, was overwhelmed by the will of Reid and Pelosi, both veterans of the appropriations process and fierce earmark defenders.

"I do certainly agree with the president that we need to try to have fewer earmarks, that we have transparency and accountability," Pelosi said.

The independent watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense identified 8,570 earmarks, as varied as $1.75 million for a fish hatchery visitors center in Arkansas and preservation of a War of 1812 battlefield in Michigan. Popular funding recipients include wildlife refuges, university research centers and job training programs.

In the Senate, five of the top 10 earmarkers were Republicans, including the overall leader, Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the ranking GOP member of the Appropriations Committee.

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