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Congress spends freely after raising debt cap

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

Congress went on a multibillion-dollar spending spree yesterday as the Senate approved a measure boosting the nation's debt limit by $781 billion and the House approved a $92 billion emergency bill funding war efforts and hurricane recovery.

Senators also voted to add $7 billion for education, health care and job training, and $3.3 billion more for a low-income heating program, to their 2007 budget blueprint. The budget proposal passed the Senate last night on a 51-49 vote, with all but five Republicans voting for it and all but one Democrat voting against.

"I'm proud of tonight's progress and will continue to work with my colleagues to implement sound, pro-growth policies that drive down the deficit and promote an environment that will enable our economy to thrive," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.

Senate Republicans turned back a slew of Democratic attempts to boost spending further, for everything from agriculture to veterans programs. But it was Republicans who voted nearly unanimously to extend the federal government a larger line of credit and plunge it deeper into debt.

Sen. Tom Coburn, the freshman from Oklahoma who was one of only three Republicans to oppose the debt limit increase, issued a "news flash" excoriating his colleagues.

Shortly after voting to boost the debt limit, Republicans tried to get unanimous approval to spend $20 million over the next five years on the Russia Polar Bear Conservation and Management Act.

"We love Polar Bears as much as the next office," the Coburn e-mail said, "but one has to question the Senate's sense of priorities and timing."

Senate Democrats pounced.

"Today's vote to increase the federal debt limit to nearly $9 trillion represents a profound failure of this administration's and Republican Congress' policies," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

The Senate budget proposal -- which sets an $873 billion cap for discretionary spending, as requested by President Bush -- also contains a measure to allow oil drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and some members opposed the budget proposal because of it. To secure passage of the budget resolution, Senate leaders agreed to send a portion of the oil drilling revenue to levee and coastal reconstruction in Louisiana. In exchange, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, agreed to vote for the budget.

Meanwhile, the House voted overwhelmingly to give Mr. Bush $92 billion for Iraq and hurricane-recovery efforts, over complaints of fiscal conservatives. The bill was approved by a 348-71 vote, with most Republicans and Democrats eager to vote to support the troops and Gulf Coast storm survivors. Nineteen Republicans and 52 Democrats voted no.

"I applaud the House for its quick passage of legislation to provide vital resources for two of our nation's top priorities," Mr. Bush said.

House Republican leaders turned back $3.6 billion in Democratic spending proposals to a bill calling for "emergency" funds for the war in Iraq and the Gulf Coast recovery, said a Republican aide for the House Appropriations Committee.

House conservatives tried earlier to strip the $19 billion in hurricane-recovery funds and another $750 million for a low-income housing program from the massive emergency-spending bill.

"Here we have another wave of appropriations coming in, without a proper accounting of where the money's been spent," Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said of the hurricane relief.

They argued that the hurricane-recovery money is not emergency funding and should go through the normal spending process. Rep. Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican who leads the conservatives, said the war spending bill has become a "fruit basket" of unrelated items.

"With a record deficit and national debt, now is the time for Congress to change the way we spend the people's money and practice fiscal discipline, even where funding the war on terror is concerned," he said.