- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Senate on Saturday passed a stopgap $634 billion spending measure to keep federal agencies funded through March that also includes money for U.S. automakers, disaster relief and billions of extra dollars for the Pentagon.

The measure ends a 26-year-old offshore oil-drilling moratorium that is set to expire Oct. 1. Democrats initially had pushed for a one-year extension of the ban, but caved to Republican and White House demands the ban be lifted.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the Democrats for allowing the drilling moratorium to expire.

“For the last several months, Americans have been demanding Congress act to lower high prices at the pump and develop new domestic sources of energy,” the Kentucky Republican said. “Today, Congress responded.”

But Democrats say they will work to reinstate the ban when a new administration takes office next year.

The spending measure passed by a vote of 78-12. The House on Wednesday also easily passed the measure, which now goes to the White House. President Bush is expected to sign the bill.

The package was necessary because Congress failed to approve any of the 12 annual appropriation bills needed to keep federal agencies operating for fiscal year 2009, which begins Wednesday. The measure would keep most domestic agencies and departments at current budget levels until March 6.

The bill provides $23 billion in emergency aid for victims of recent hurricanes and summer floods in the Midwest. That includes $2.8 billion for flood-control projects in New Orleans and the Midwest, $8 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief fund, and $6.5 billion in community-development grants to speed relief to flood and hurricane victims.

Another key provision is $25 billion in low-interest loan guarantees for General Motors Corp., the Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC — a huge victory for Detroit’s struggling Big Three automakers.

Some Republicans criticized Democrats for allowing thousands of “earmarks” — pet spending projects — to be inserted into the measure. The bill contains more than 2,300 earmarks, totaling at least $6.6 billion.

“The American people should be disappointed that a Congress that began with promises of change is ending with more of the same,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and vocal earmark critic.

“Sooner or later, every egregious earmark and conflict of interest in this bill will be exposed and those responsible for betraying the public’s trust will be held accountable,” he warned.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.