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On spending bills, GOP punts to Democrats

WASHINGTON—"Use it or lose it" might seem to be the obvious game plan for the Republicans who are about to give up control of Congress.

But rather than using the final days of their lame-duck session this week to ram through all the legislation they can, Republican leaders are taking a counterintuitive approach: Do a minimum and leave the rest to the Democrats to deal with next year.

That includes political hot potatoes such as domestic terrorism surveillance and an immigration overhaul. It also includes one of Congress' most basic responsibilities: passing the annual appropriations bills, which determine how the federal government spends some $873 billion to cover everything from making nuclear weapons to running the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Only two of this year's 11 appropriations bills—those dealing with defense and homeland security—have passed. The rest are now two months overdue, comprise about $400 billion and cover everything from national parks and veterans' care to the federal judiciary.

One explanation for the inaction is that fiscally conservative Republicans, who want to rein in government spending, are making it too tough for their party to finish the work by year's end. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and his allies have threatened to offer dozens of amendments to strip pork-barrel projects from the spending bills, a tactic that could drag the session on for weeks as lawmakers fight to protect projects for their constituents.

There's a more cynical element to the Republican Party's wait-it-out approach, too: It throws a wrench into the plans of the new party in power.

House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised to clamp down on "earmarks" for lawmakers' pet projects? OK—let her figure out how to scrub the estimated 10,000 projects, such as roads, bridges and dubious grants, that send money back home and finance jobs.

Republicans savor strapping newly empowered Democrats with last year's business before they've hired enough staff members to manage the work; the majority party gets perhaps four times more appropriations staff than the minority.

Republican leaders also relish the prospect of letting the Democrats burn up time and energy that they'd hoped to spend on their own agenda of raising the minimum wage, crafting tuition relief and investigating the Bush administration.

They'll force the Democrats to juggle the leftover spending bills with the fiscal 2008 budget plan that the White House will send up in February, along with a separate emergency war-spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan that's expected to top $100 billion.

"The Democrats spent a lot of time last year complaining about earmarks and the `culture of corruption,' and it's time for them to put up or shut up," said Brian M. Riedl, federal budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center. "These bills will be a test."

The federal government won't shut down so long as lawmakers pass a stopgap spending measure to keep agency funding constant. Republicans intend to make it effective through Feb. 15, or about one week after Bush's next budget is submitted.

Democrats aren't happy about any of it.

"It's frustrating, and it's going to be much harder," said the Senate's incoming majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev. "What they've done is so unsportsmanlike, to just walk away from your job."

Reid said the time crunch might force the Democrats to consider two options, each potentially controversial. One is to consolidate the unfinished appropriations bills into one omnibus bill stuffed with even more earmarks to ensure its passage. The other is to abandon the separate bills and simply extend the stopgap-spending bill to the end of fiscal 2007 next Sept. 30, which would leave many federal programs pinched for money. He hopes that neither will be necessary.

"We'll have to work with this and just do the best we can," Reid said.

Not all Republicans are enamored of their party's strategy, including the outgoing chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Thad Cochran, R-Miss. He considers his party's decision not to finish the appropriations bills "an irresponsible way to govern" that's impairing government agencies and their ability to serve taxpayers, said his spokeswoman, Jenny Manley.

But there's precedent for the move.

When the Democrats took control of the Senate briefly after Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont switched from Republican to independent in 2001, they left the Republicans with unfinished appropriations bills heading into 2003.

This time, Republicans may gain an advantage, Riedl noted, because President Bush may be more likely to veto wasteful spending if it's in a Democratic bill than he would be if the measure came from his fellow Republicans.

Inaction on the bills even will save money in the short term, because the appropriations bills in limbo would raise government spending.

Moreover, the Democrats probably won't strip out all the Republicans' special "earmarks," congressional experts said, because that would defy a decades-long tradition of bipartisan back-scratching on pork projects.

The Republicans probably will lose some pet projects in their gamble, however. Tradition dictates that the party in power gets about 60 percent of the earmarks in spending bills, while the minority party gets about 40 percent. Republicans wrote the bills this year, but Democrats will rewrite them come January.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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