Democrats’ budget bill: $1.1 trillion; 1,900 pages

December 15, 2010


Defying the political odds, Senate Democrats rolled out a year-end, governmentwide spending bill Tuesday that cuts more than $26 billion from President Barack Obama’s 2011 requests even as it holds firm to thousands of the appropriations earmarks so adamantly opposed by critics of Congress.

Filling more than 1,900 pages, the $1.1 trillion measure represents an increase of less than 2 percent in annual spending but makes for an easy target of ridicule — a last stand by the Senate’s old bulls before the tea party takeover. In a scene reminiscent of the movie “Casablanca,” top Republicans expressed shock, shock that there was gambling still in Rick’s Cafe even after their own members have been quietly working to write the bill and gather GOP votes for passage.

“It’s completely inappropriate; I’m vigorously in opposition to it,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who then had to admit the bill included earmarks for projects in his home state of Kentucky. Indeed, the spending levels are specifically designed to meet appropriations targets that McConnell and much of the Republican leadership espoused only months ago, and the leader’s old friend, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), has been active on the bill’s behalf.

Appropriations clerks in both the House and the Senate have devoted months to the effort in a last hope of salvaging something from the collapsed budget process this year. The Departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security have the greatest stake in the increases above 2010 levels, and, surprisingly, the bill also adds about $5.4 billion for new labor, education and health spending in addition to billions more to meet a shortfall in Pell grants for low-income college students.

Included is an $840 million increase for Head Start and $550 million for Obama’s signature Race to the Top education initiative. But conservatives zeroed in most on what they estimated was $1.25 billion in spending related to health care reform — a sure target in the next Congress.

The first challenge for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) will be to get the 60 votes needed to limit debate — a test that could come as early as Saturday. He’s had little help thus far from the White House, whose costly tax deal with Republicans may have made his task harder. But the administration has a major stake in the fight, since it most fears that Republicans will insist on a short-term continuing resolution that will only set up a new fight in February.

For this reason, the House last week passed a stripped-down, yearlong continuing resolution as a buffer of sorts for the president. But pressed by House conservatives, Senate Republicans are agitating for a two-month continuing resolution to set up that spending confrontation with Obama early next year.

Even before the bill’s release Tuesday afternoon, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, jumped in to attack Democrats for ignoring, he said, the “clear will expressed by voters this past election.” And New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a senior Republican on the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees, said a short-term CR would be preferable at this stage, given the shortness of time before the holiday recess.

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