Senate Democrats end GOP filibuster of spending bill

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Senate cleared a key parliamentary hurdle Saturday on a spending bill that finances almost half the federal government and increases funding for the agencies it covers by an average of 10 percent.

The Senate voted 60 to 34 to close off debate on the must-pass omnibus spending bill. But in order to end a Republican filibuster, Democrats had to hold open the 15-minute vote for an additional 50 minutes so 92-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) could attend and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) could walk to the chamber from his synagogue in Georgetown.

Byrd has been ailing most of this year and votes only on important matters. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, honors the Sabbath by refusing to drive and by rarely working on Saturdays unless absolutely necessary.

"Shabbat shalom [peaceful Sabbath]," Lieberman said to photographers as he entered the Capitol, after attending morning services on the second day of Hanukkah and then walking more than three miles to the Capitol on a cold December morning. He cast the 60th vote -- the minimum number needed -- for the $446.8 billion spending bill covering the Justice and State departments, among other agencies.

A final vote is scheduled for Sunday afternoon. The House passed the measure last week, and President Obama has indicated he will sign the bill.

All but three Senate Republicans opposed the measure, citing what they consider to be wasteful spending on domestic agencies at a time of war. Three Democrats -- Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) -- joined Republicans in supporting a filibuster of the bill.

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 GOP leader, called for "a more responsible way" of handling the dozen annual spending bills. Only five bills have been completed and signed into law. This bill bundles together six of the remaining appropriations bills into one measure, in what has become a typical annual legislative adventure.

Kyl said such a major bill becomes impossible to oppose or else a federal government shutdown would ensue. "If you can't get it passed on its own merits, then bundle it up with a whole bunch of other stuff," he said during the floor debate.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democratic leader, argued that the bill is filled with honorable spending increases in areas that the Bush administration ignored for most of this decade. In particular, he cited a $5.3 billion boost in funds for veterans programs.

"These men and women need our help. This package of bills provides that help," Durbin said.

Another critical spending measure will be considered next week in the House. A $626 billion funding bill for the Pentagon, traditionally a bipartisan vote, is quickly becoming a legislative Christmas tree with other must-pass ornaments attached.

Democrats expect to add a provision increasing the national debt limit to more than $13 trillion, from $12.1 trillion, as well as $70 billion in funds for a jobs package focused heavily on infrastructure programs and on extensions of normal federal highway construction programs and the USA PATRIOT Act. Republicans have traditionally supported all military funding bills, but they are considering opposing the omnibus defense bill because of the possible add-ons.

"We're going to see how they put the package together," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned after the Saturday morning vote.

Weekend sessions, once rare, have become increasingly common this fall for the House and Senate, since the health-care debate has consumed the legislative calendar and has left little time to consider other key items. Aside from Thanksgiving weekend, the Senate has now worked three straight weekends.

The usual decorum of suits and ties gave way to an unusual level of casual attire Saturday, including Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) appearing on the floor wearing blue jeans.

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