By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The Senate gave final approval last night to a $410 billion spending bill to fund most of the federal government for the remainder of the year after overcoming a resilient Republican opposition and several Democratic defections.
The bill, which includes thousands of controversial earmarks inserted by members of both parties, was approved on a voice vote after eight Republicans joined 54 Democrats in backing a procedural measure to bring the long and rancorous debate to a close. President Obama has indicated that he will sign the legislation despite having misgivings about the earmarks.
The bill was six months overdue, a victim of partisan gridlock at the end of George W. Bush's presidency but also sticker shock. Congress already has approved a $700 billion financial bailout and a $787 billion economic stimulus package. And Obama has said he is likely to ask for more money.
"This has taken far too long," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said before the final vote. The multiple hurdles that blocked the bill were "surprising to me," he said. "It's been difficult. But we're going to get it done."
The measure would provide fiscal 2009 funding for nine federal departments, covering all government activities other than defense and homeland security-related agencies, whose funding was approved last fall. Many agencies would see big increases, in some cases 10 percent or more above fiscal 2008 levels.
Dissent over the measure was widespread. Some Republicans waged a high-profile battle against 8,500-plus spending provisions, known as earmarks. Other GOP lawmakers objected to generous funding increases in the midst of an economic crisis. Three Democrats opposed the bill: Sens. Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.), both earmark opponents, and Evan Bayh (Ind.), who objected to its cost.
In an important policy shift, the bill includes a loosening of restrictions on travel to and imports from Cuba that the Bush administration imposed. The issue proved explosive among supporters of the trade embargo. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the leader of the group, voiced strong objections last week on the chamber floor and withdrew his support for the underlying legislation, forcing Reid to delay a final vote from Thursday until last night.
But Menendez, along with Sens. Bill Nelson (D) and Mel Martinez (R), who are both from Florida, said they were reassured by a letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner pledging that the Cuba provision would be interpreted narrowly, and the two Democrats supported the final bill.
Another contentious provision targets the District's school voucher program, a Republican favorite that provides 1,700 low-income students with the equivalent of a $7,500 grant to attend a private school. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) sought unsuccessfully to strike language from the bill that would require its reauthorization after the 2009-2010 school year, a move he said would leave current recipients in limbo.
"We're talking about real children here," Ensign said on the Senate floor before his amendment was defeated yesterday, pointing to a poster-size photo of two voucher beneficiaries at Sidwell Friends School, where Obama's daughters, Malia and Sasha, are students.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) defended the reauthorization requirement as a routine review to determine whether the voucher approach works. "Congress will take a look at the program and decide if the money is well spent," he said.
The bill represents a bonanza for federal agencies that felt a budget squeeze for much of Bush's two terms. Mass transit, public housing, the National Institutes of Health, Head Start and the Pell grant program are all among the Democratic priorities that would see new federal money flow into their coffers. The Food and Drug Administration would receive nearly $335 million more than it did in fiscal 2008. The supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC, would grow by $1.2 billion, a 21 percent jump from the $5.7 billion appropriated last year.
The debate also gave renewed prominence to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chief critic of the bill's earmarks. "This evil has grown, and it has grown, and it has grown," said McCain, who called the earmarking process a "gateway drug" to more egregious, and possibly illegal, forms of influence peddling.
But as debate unfolded over the past week, Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee teamed up with most Democrats to reject efforts to remove any earmarks from the bill, including items connected to a lobbying firm under federal investigation. One reason for their solidarity was an announcement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that any changes would render the measure dead, limiting current funding to 2008 levels.
The independent watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense found 8,570 disclosed earmarks in the bill, worth $7.7 billion. Only five senators did not add pet projects to the measure, including Republicans McCain, Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), and Democrats Feingold and McCaskill.
The bill appeared in jeopardy again last night after Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) demanded a vote on his amendment to force Congress to approve its own cost-of-living increases each year, rather than allowing them to take effect automatically. The measure was politically attractive to members of both parties, but failed after Reid warned that it would sink the bill and vowed to bring the pay issue to the floor separately.
Earmarks account for just 1 percent of the bill's overall cost, but House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said they had become wrapped into the larger debate about the size of the federal government, along with concerns about the soaring deficit.
Speaking to reporters, he tallied up $2 trillion in spending in five months, including the omnibus spending bill, the stimulus and the financial bailout, just as Obama's advisers revealed deficit projections of $1.8 trillion, major banks and auto companies teetered on the brink, and the stock markets remained near historic lows despite yesterday's rally.
"We're betting trillions of dollars that we're doing the right thing. So far, the bet's not paying off," Boehner said. "Had it not been for the stimulus and the budget proposal, [the omnibus] might have been noncontroversial. . . . This little iceberg came along and caused them all sorts of problems."
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.