President Bush is no believer in government's ability to solve all problems, and he has made clear he intends to keep a tight rein on domestic spending. But last week, it seemed as if every problem in America was being dumped into the lap of the Republican-controlled Senate in hopes that the government would find a solution.
Attracted by a $390 billion spending bill that the Senate finally passed late Thursday, the supplicants came from every region and economic class, and from nearly every sector of the workforce. They included Louisiana oystermen, retired miners, doctors, unemployed workers, rural health care providers, Pacific Northwest timber companies, drought-ravaged farmers in the Great Plains and many more. In an example of the government's long reach, Pacific Coast fishermen going out of business because of overfishing got a guarantee in the bill that the government will help buy them out.
The sheer magnitude of the needs expressed left some senators feeling almost overwhelmed. "You're dealing with this need, that need. Pretty soon you're out of money and haven't met all the needs," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said. He spent much of the week lobbying futilely for unemployment benefits for an additional 1 million jobless workers.
For both parties, the outpouring poses opportunities and risks. Democrats expose themselves to charges of profligate spending at a time of soaring deficits. Republicans attacked them last week for requesting billions more dollars for farmers, health care providers and the poor. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) displayed a "spendometer" that kept track of the cumulative cost of Democratic amendments and unleashed a blistering attack after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) proposed a multibillion-dollar amendment to boost Medicare payments to providers and raise the federal share of Medicaid in some states.
"We are about growing the economy. . . . They are about growing the government," Santorum said.
But the enormous public appetite for federal help that was on display last week also poses problems for the GOP. Republicans in Congress have endorsed a White House fiscal strategy that combines tax cuts with a tight rein on domestic spending. The White House set a strict spending ceiling for the bill, which funds every government department except the Pentagon this year. Republicans vowed that the final product, to be worked out in negotiations with the House over the next few weeks, will stay close to the president's top line.
But Democrats charged repeatedly last week that the GOP policy was aimed at starving the government so wealthy Americans could have a tax cut. "That tax cut is strangling money for education, research and disaster relief," fumed Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).
Under pressure from powerful constituencies, the GOP shoehorned in extra money for education, drought relief for farmers, doctors and hospitals facing cuts in Medicare reimbursements, and states required to improve their voting systems. Included in the bill, which passed 69 to 29, is $8 billion more in highway construction money than Bush requested. Republican budget experts were considering various "scoring" gimmicks that would enable them to keep the extra spending while claiming to have met the president's target.
Along with big-ticket spending, the final bill was stuffed with hundreds of projects, from agricultural research to water treatment, requested by GOP members. On Thursday, two conservative Mississippi Republicans, Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, pleaded for funds to start the Yazoo Pump project, a controversial Army Corps of Engineers flood control initiative, in their home state.
Lott, who was pushed out of his job as majority leader in December after remarks praising the 1948 segregationist presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond, noted that "the African American population is the majority" in most of the counties that would benefit. "The federal government has made a promise to these good people," Lott said.
Most Republicans rallied behind Lott when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried unsuccessfully to strike the project, which he called "wasteful and environmentally harmful."
Privately, some Republicans express uneasiness with the White House strategy. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said last week that doctors in his state are no longer accepting new Medicare patients because of cuts in federal Medicare reimbursements. A Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), pushed through an amendment extending a temporary increase in Medicare payments to deliverers of home health services.
The administration's 2004 budget, which will be released in several weeks, will propose a 4 percent increase in discretionary spending, according to White House budget director Mitch Daniels. But most of the increases will go to the Pentagon and homeland defense, leaving little more for domestic programs..
That gloomy outlook for domestic programs may have increased the incentive by senators from both parties to battle for favorite projects in the 2003 bill that was on the Senate floor.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who highlighted her ability to win federal appropriations for her state during her recent close reelection campaign, proved her point, coming away with a number of provisions. One amendment provides historically black colleges $10 million for the next five years to modernize buildings. Another increases federal assistance to home weatherization programs.
Landrieu also worked with Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) to obtain $3 million in relief for Gulf Coast oystermen who have suffered economically since oyster beds were damaged by a series of hurricanes.
Along with bids for money, senators also came forward with requests for the federal government to play an even more active role in protecting the environment, refereeing economic disputes and in other matters..
Byrd secured a guarantee of health benefits for 50,000 retired miners who said they were due money from a private fund set up by mining companies.
A Republican, Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), got the Senate to approve an extension of a ban on oil- and gas-drilling in the Great Lakes through 2005.
Meanwhile, two of the Senate's most conservative Republicans, Sens. John E. Sununu and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, supported an amendment aimed at having the federal government play a more active role in protecting New England from Midwest air pollution. Both voted for an amendment that would have slowed down what they see as backtracking by the Environmental Protection Agency.