Archive for Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Congress sends $410B spending bill to president

March 11, 2009

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— Congress on Tuesday sent President Barack Obama a once-bipartisan bill to fund the domestic Cabinet agencies that evolved instead into a symbol of lawmakers’ free-spending ways and penchant for back-home pet projects.

The Senate approved the measure by voice after it cleared a key procedural hurdle by a 62-35 vote. Sixty votes were required to shut down debate.

Obama is expected to sign the measure today to avoid a partial shutdown of the government. But the White House has kept the bill at arm’s length, calling it last year’s business. Obama is also set to announce steps aimed at curbing lawmakers’ so-called earmarks.

The $410 billion bill is chock-full of those pet projects and significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs. It was supposed to have been completed last fall, but Democrats opted against election-year battles with Republicans and former President George W. Bush.

The measure was a top priority for Democratic leaders, who praised it for numerous increases denied by Bush. It once enjoyed support from Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

But the bill ran into an unexpected political hailstorm in Congress after Obama’s spending-heavy economic stimulus bill and his 2010 budget plan forecasting a $1.8 trillion deficit for the current budget year. And Republicans seized on Obama’s willingness to sign a bill packed with earmarks after he assailed them as a candidate.

“If it had not been for the stimulus and the budget proposal it might have been ... noncontroversial,” said House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio. “The stimulus bill riled an awful lot of people up. ... And then the budget proposal comes out.”

Within Democratic ranks, there was relief, not jubilation.

The 1,132-page spending bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund foreign aid and the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

It also contains numerous policy changes, including shutting down a program allowing Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond U.S.-Mexico border zones, easing rules on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island to visit relatives and allowing quick reversal of Bush administration rules opposed by environmentalists.

Described by lawmakers as a $410 billion measure — but officially tallied by the Congressional Budget Office at $408 billion because of technicalities involving heating subsidies for the poor — the bill was written mostly over the course of last year, with support from key Republicans such as McConnell and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Senate’s No. 3 Republican.

The big increases — among them a 14 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent increase for housing vouchers for the poor — represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with Bush over money for domestic programs.

Congress also awarded itself a 10 percent increase in its own budget, bringing it to $4.4 billion. But the measure contains a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.

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