Budget efforts break down as lawmakers fear anger at home

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Congress on Friday approved enough money to keep most of the federal government running for five more days — after members of both parties objected to the proposed $410 billion budget for the rest of the year.

Efforts to pass that bill broke down as some lawmakers warned that they couldn't head home and tell constituents reeling from the economic downturn why they gave most domestic programs the 8 percent increase contained in that bill — not to mention an 11 percent boost for congressional operations.

"Do people understand the nuances of the legislative process? Probably not. But do they understand when we say the budget is going up 8 percent? Then they ask questions," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who's has opposed the big increase.

Some Republicans were particularly annoyed by the inclusion of thousands of earmarks, or local projects, and were outraged that Obama administration officials who were members of Congress last year kept dozens of their own initiatives in the bill.

"They are wasteful. They should not be funded," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., of all the earmarks. McCain, President Barack Obama's opponent in last year's election, has spent the week railing against the practice.

The bill, which the Senate will continue debating Monday, doesn't include most defense and homeland security budgets. Those already have been approved for the full fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

Members of Congress wrote most of the other agencies' budgets last year, but the plans stalled when President George W. Bush objected to many of the spending increases. Democrats, who controlled Congress then and now, instead waited until this year, when they saw better prospects under a Democratic president.

Democrats argued Friday that despite the spending increases, the bill sets new directions in policy and provides funds for vital programs.

Bush, they said, wanted substantial cuts in energy efficiency, health care, education, job training and state and local law enforcement programs. Democrats not only restored most of the cuts, but also increase the funds for many such programs.

In a week when the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its lowest level in 12 years and the nation's unemployment rate reached a 25-year high in February, however, many lawmakers were uneasy about going home to defend a yes vote on the spending package.

Even the bid to keep the government open through Wednesday stirred some controversy Friday as Republicans tried to freeze all spending at current levels.

"Let's show the American taxpayers that we get it. Let's show investors in our American economy that we get it," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Democrats fought back, saying that the increase was a safety net as well as a stimulus, a way of helping the economy revive.

Constituents understand that "when the economy is contracting at a record rate . . . we've got to respond, to try and reinflate the economy again," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

The freeze lost on a largely party line 218 to 160 vote, with eight Democrats joining 152 Republicans in voting for it. The House then voted 328 to 50 to approve the five-day funding measure, and the Senate agreed by voice vote. Obama then signed the measure on Friday evening.

That means the fight over the budget will be renewed on Monday, with the Senate as the chief arena.

The House had passed the full budget last week. Senate Democratic leaders had expected a final vote Thursday night, but gave up after it was clear that they didn't have the 60 votes needed to end debate.

Democrats control 58 Senate seats, and as many as four members were thought to object to the bill.

"Voters rightly demanded change in November's election, but this approach to spending represents business as usual in Washington," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

Republicans had a host of concerns. All week, they've tried to amend the legislation and all their efforts failed by big margins. Still, they wanted to keep trying.

The proposal that triggered the breakdown in the Senate process came from Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who wants to bar the Senate from getting pay raises unless members specifically approve them. Currently, raises are automatic, based on a formula based on average increases given to private sector employees.

Most Senate and House members got a 2.8 percent pay increase in January and now earn $174,000. Their pay for 2010 will be frozen.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was unhappy with Vitter's maneuver. "Basically as I understand the amendment, members would never get (cost of living adjustments) again," Reid said.

Wrong, Vitter said. "It would require member votes to not have that be on autopilot and to happen automatically," he said, "particularly given the state of the economy and the income losses and job losses that are being suffered around the country."

ON THE WEB

History of Congressional pay raises

Text of fiscal 2009 spending bill

House roll call vote on five-day spending bill

House roll call vote on spending freeze

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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