POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 15, 2010
WASHINGTON » The spending barons on Capitol Hill, long used to muscling past opponents of bills larded with pet projects, are seeking one last victory before tea party-backed GOP insurgents storm Congress intent on ending the good old days of pork-barrel politics.
You might call it the last running of the old bulls in Congress.
In the waning days of the lame duck congressional session, Democrats led by Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye -- in collaboration with a handful of old-school Republicans -- are pushing to wrap $1.27 trillion worth of unfinished budget work into a single "omnibus" appropriations bill.
Their 1,900-plus-page bill comes to the floor this week stuffed with provisions sought by lawmakers. It contains thousands of pet projects, known as earmarks, pushed by Democratic and GOP senators alike -- despite a pledge by Republicans to give up such projects next year.
"That omnibus bill will be loaded down with earmarks and pork-barrel spending, which is a direct -- a direct -- betrayal of the majority of voters on Nov. 2 who said, 'Stop the earmarking, stop the spending, stop the pork-barrel projects,'" protested Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
HIGHLIGHTS OF SENATE SPENDING BILLThe Senate's yearlong spending bill introduced by the Appropriations Committee yesterday:
» Provides $1.27 trillion for federal programs running through the end of the 2011 fiscal year next Sept. 30. That's somewhat less than the budget proposed by President Barack Obama but about $18 billion above the spending bill the House narrowly passed last week.
» Covers discretionary federal programs but not entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security and repayment of the national debt.
» Runs to 2,000 pages and includes thousands of so-called earmarks, those special projects requested by individual members. The 423-page House bill, which essentially freezes spending at 2010 budget-year levels, has no earmarks.
» Provides the Pentagon $668 billion, including $158 billion to conduct the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some $2.6 billion goes to the health care needs of veterans of those conflicts.
» Provides Homeland Security $43.5 billion, about $1 billion above 2010 levels. That includes $5.6 billion for the Transportation Security Administration, $7.5 billion for FEMA and $10 billion for customs and border protection to fully fund 20,500 Border Patrol agents.
» Provides $53.5 billion for State Department operations. That includes $23 billion for bilateral economic aid, down more than $1 billion, and $9 billion for international security assistance, including peacekeeping.
» Provides $25 billion for student financial aid. Maintains the maximum grant for the Pell Grant program for low-income college students at $5,550.
» Provides $3.8 billion for state and local law enforcement, $345 million more than the president requested.
» Challenges Obama with administration-opposed provisions to block the Pentagon from transferring prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to the United States, and to continue a program to develop a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The catchall bill is designed to bankroll the operations of every Cabinet agency for the budget year that started Oct. 1, as well as $158 billion to pay for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It also challenges President Barack Obama. One administration-opposed provision would block the Pentagon from transferring Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the United States. Another would provide $450 million for a program to develop a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter despite a veto threat by the administration, which says it's a waste of money.
The architect of the measure, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Inouye, has been working with senior Republicans on the panel -- Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Robert Bennett of Utah and Christopher Bond of Missouri -- to line up the 60 votes needed to repel a filibuster promised by GOP Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and other conservatives.
"We remain cautiously optimistic," said Inouye spokesman Rob Blumenthal.
Inouye's measure would replace a slightly less expensive bill that the House passed last week. The House bill doesn't contain earmarks like road and agricultural research projects, water treatment plants and grants for local anti-drug campaigns.
House Democrats, however, would gladly accept the fatter Senate version. Its earmarks include $80 million in grants to states and Indian tribes to preserve Pacific salmon and $13 million in clean water grants for rural and Alaska native villages.
There's also $4 million sought by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell for the Kentucky National Guard's marijuana eradication efforts and $8 million sought by GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota to help maintain the B-1 bomber fleet in his state. Though their states would benefit, both Republicans oppose the bill, and McConnell said yesterday he's asked for his earmarks to be removed.
"This is exactly what the American people said Nov. 2 they didn't want us to do," he added.
The year-end logjam continues a long tradition in which a dysfunctional Congress is unable to do its most basic job of providing money to run the government on time.
Rather than debating a dozen separate appropriations bills, the omnibus spending measure rolls all the spending bills into a single piece of legislation that is likely to be brought to the floor in a way that keeps opponents from trimming it.
Democrats hope to pass the measure by a midnight Saturday. That would give them the latest -- and perhaps last -- victory over conservatives who contend the annual appropriations bills spend too much money and contain too many pork-barrel projects.
Incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is a long-standing opponent of doling out federal dollars for sewer projects, community development grants and the like based on special requests from lawmakers.
Boehner will become the single most powerful member of Congress next year, and he has laid down the law, promising to cut as much as $100 billion from 2011 agency budgets and to ban earmarks. He signed a letter last week asking Obama to veto the omnibus bill because of its earmarks, and issued a statement yesterday calling the legislation a "disgrace" and "a smack in the face to taxpayers."
For now, though, Boehner still is outnumbered by Democrats.
And across the Capitol, Democrats control the Senate with 58 votes. But their numbers will shrink to 53 in January, and many of the 13 incoming Senate Republicans are replacing eager earmarkers like Bond and Bennett, who follow the Appropriations Committee tradition of banding together, regardless of party, to beat back critics of their spending.
McConnell said he's actively working to defeat the giant spending bill. And GOP conservatives are irate over provisions that would begin to pay for Obama's overhauls of the U.S. health care system and financial services regulations.