By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; A02
After months of resistance, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) announced Tuesday that he will enforce a ban on earmarks in all Senate spending bills, ending a cherished practice by lawmakers that had become a symbol of wasteful excess.
The Senate moratorium, which will remain in place for two years, follows a similar move by the GOP-led House and a veto threat by President Obama in his State of the Union address last week. It's the latest signal that Democrats are feeling political pressure on the issue of deficit reduction and are willing to consider measures that until recently they dismissed as posturing by their Republican adversaries.
Inouye had long argued that Congress has a constitutional imperative to direct spending as lawmakers deem necessary. Surrendering that power, the argument goes, would only strengthen the executive branch. Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who has delivered billions of dollars in perks to his home state, dismissed Obama's veto threat as an "applause line" and urged him to "back off" the issue.
But on Tuesday, Inouye said: "The handwriting is clearly on the wall. . . . Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law."
Hours earlier, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a top GOP target in her bid for a second term in 2012, unveiled legislation with Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and other Republicans to shrink federal spending on all government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, to a much smaller percentage of the economy. The proposal represented the most draconian deficit reduction effort yet to be endorsed by a Democrat.
And Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.), another Democratic newcomer from a swing state, announced Tuesday that he would co-sponsor a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, a top conservative priority that has resurfaced in recent weeks in the deficit-reduction plans of numerous GOP lawmakers.
The burst of Democratic movement reflects a growing recognition that, even as job creation remains the top priority for Obama and his party, the record deficits and $14 trillion national debt are becoming equally urgent concerns. All three proposals suggest that bipartisan solutions to the nation's fiscal crisis are possible and could begin to take shape in coming weeks. Obama will release his budget Feb. 14, and Congress must act this spring to fund the government through the current fiscal year and to raise the debt ceiling.
"This is the issue of the decade, and we have got to get this right," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). "There is extraordinary interest on both the Democratic and Republican side to find a way forward. This is a pivotal moment in time in our nation's history."
The McCaskill-Corker proposal would set federal spending limits starting in fiscal 2013, when, it is hoped, the economic recovery will have fully taken hold. Federal spending currently stands at 24.7 percent of gross domestic product; the legislation would lower the rate over 10 years to 20.6 percent, the historical average, according to the bill's authors.
That rate is lower even than the 21 percent cap proposed by Obama's bipartisan debt commission and criticized by liberal budget analysts as unrealistic, given the rising health-care and retirement costs of the aging U.S. population. One analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, cited 23 to 25 percent as a more realistic range, given the expected rise in entitlement costs.
The McCaskill-Corker bill has gained support from numerous GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a member of the Senate leadership. But so far, McCaskill is the only Democrat to endorse the plan.
"This is politically risky, what the senator and I are trying to do," she acknowledged in a Senate floor speech. "If this bill is distorted and twisted, it could cost me my Senate seat. But it's a price I'm willing to pay."
Corker has spent recent months traveling his home state, appearing at 43 events to measure his constituents' views on the fiscal crisis. He said that his bill "has no ideological base" and that "both parties have contributed to the situation we're in." By including Social Security and Medicare under the cap, Corker said, "this is the first time in the entitlement era we have tried to put . . . everything on the table in a global, comprehensive way."