Senate Democrats give up on earmark-laden spending bill

By Paul Kane and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 11:29 PM

Senate Democrats on Thursday abandoned their efforts to approve a comprehensive funding bill for the federal government after Republicans rebelled against its $1.2 trillion cost and the inclusion of nearly 7,000 line-item projects for individual lawmakers.

After a day of backroom negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he could not overcome a Republican filibuster after GOP senators turned away from billions of dollars of so-called earmarks they had sought in the bill.

Instead, a slimmed-down resolution that would fund the government mostly at current levels will come before the Senate, and Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it will pass by Saturday.

Reid said the Senate would then return to three other Democratic priorities: a repeal of the prohibition on gays serving openly in the military, a law that would benefit children of illegal immigrants and a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

The majority leader's surrender on the spending bill marked a final rebuke for this Congress to the old-school system of funding the government, in which the barons of the Appropriations Committee decided which states would receive tens of millions of dollars each year.

McConnell, a member of the appropriations panel, had long championed his own earmarks to the Bluegrass State until last month. But he mounted a furious, and ultimately successful, effort to reject the omnibus legislation, persuading up to nine Republicans who had considered supporting the bill to turn against it.

"In the last 24 hours they've walked away from me," Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday night. The turnabout left the Senate leader short of the 60 votes he would need to overcome a filibuster.

Before McConnell had locked down all 42 Republicans, he was threatening to force the reading of the 1,924-page bill as a delaying tactic.

He blamed Democrats for not bringing any of the 12 spending bills for fiscal 2011 to the floor. Instead, they dropped the legislation, which compiled all the bills - none of which Congress passed this year - on senators' desks on Tuesday.

"The full Senate didn't do its job, and this is precisely the kind of thing the American people have gotten tired of," he said.

Almost every Senate Republican had some favor in the bill, but as voter angst about runaway deficits grew before the midterm elections, Republicans turned against the earmark practice.

McConnell requested $112 million worth of earmarks in the legislation, according to estimates from the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) would have been the single largest beneficiary of the bill, with more than $500 million in co-sponsored earmarks, but he also walked away from it.

Reid and most Democrats think that yielding their earmark ability only gives the administration the power of the federal purse.

The DREAM Act is likely to fail, but the procedural vote on ending the "don't ask, don't tell" legislation could clear the 60-vote hurdle. If it does, that would set up a final vote on that bill Monday. At that point the Senate would return to debate of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. A final vote on that pact with Russia is expected by Wednesday, and its approval requires a super-majority of 67 votes.

Senators spent a full day Thursday debating the treaty, with Democrats accusing Republican opponents of slow-walking the measure.

"We've been here for a day. We still haven't had an amendment," Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John F. Kerry (Mass.) said after six hours of speeches. Kerry is leading the Democratic effort to beat back any changes to the carefully crafted deal with the Russians, who oppose any tweaks to it.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said his staff had compiled a two-page list of amendments that Republicans planned to offer but said a full debate is needed first.

"Part of the business on the treaty is to expose its flaws, and have a robust debate about those flaws, which can provide the foundation for the amendments we intend to offer," he said.

kanep@washpost.com sheridanm@washpost.com

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company