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Senate’s agenda grows as the clock ticks
Reid ready to work till Jan. 4
Question of the Day
Forget about going quietly into the night.
Senate Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a broad agenda for an end-of-session sprint that otherwise could be a whole year's worth of activity — including an arms-reduction treaty with Russia, a major immigration reform bill and legislation overturning the ban on openly gay military service members.
That's not to mention the nearly 2,000-page, $1.1 trillion spending bill that contains hundreds of pork-barrel projects and new rules governing things such as airport baggage and the fate of detainees at the military prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"We're not through. Congress ends on Jan. 4," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
What is likely to get the most attention is the omnibus spending bill, spanning 1,924 pages and spending what amounts to an average of $575.13 million per page.
It stands in contrast to the House, which last week passed a bill freezing fiscal 2011 spending at 2010 levels. The Senate bill boosts spending by $16 billion — a tough sell at a time when deficits and debt are dominating the policy debate in Washington.
In some cases, the spending bill rejects President Obama's proposed cuts. For example, Mr. Obama asked Congress to cut funding for the Delta Health Initiative, which in 2010 received about $26 million for health care programs in eight states. The Senate bill increases funding for the program to nearly $35 million.
In further defiance of Mr. Obama, aides said, the bill funds an alternate production line for engines for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Mr. Obama has said he would veto any legislation that funded the second engine program, which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said is not needed.
"Our military does not want or need these programs being pushed by the Congress, and should Congress ignore this fact, I will veto any such legislation, so that it can be returned to me without those provisions," Mr. Obama said in a statement in May, when Congress was ramping up its budget process.
Senators also included their House colleagues' requests for earmark spending after the House passed a bill devoid of pork. Still, earmarks total less than 1 percent of the budget.
The spending bills are two months overdue, since fiscal year 2011 began Oct. 1, and the government has been operating on stopgap funding.
Republicans, who are taking control of the House next year and increasing their numbers in the Senate, said they would prefer a short-term spending extension so that they can revisit the issue under the next Congress. House Democrats passed a long-term "continuing resolution" that mainly freezes 2010 spending for all of 2011.
Senate Democrats said they prefer to pass the omnibus bill, which they said would make sure spending is targeted and appropriate.
"While I appreciate the work that the House has done in producing a full-year continuing resolution, I do not believe that putting the government on autopilot for a full year is in the best interest of the American people," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat.
In a memo, the Appropriations Committee said the House approach fails to make $10.2 billion in cuts to what it considers wasteful military programs and fails to increase spending for needs that have emerged in the past year, such as more oversight of offshore oil-drilling rigs.
The measure also addresses smaller requests, such as specifically authorizing the secretary of Health and Human Services to purchase six new sedans.
The bill marks a last bite at pork for many Senate Republicans, who voted last month to impose a one-year earmark ban on themselves, beginning next year.
Included in the bill are $350,000 for "cool-season legume research," $1 million for "arthropod-damage control" in Nevada and $8 million for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, won the earmark battle with 45 projects to his name. Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, was second with 38 earmarks, and Mr. Inouye was third with 34 projects.
Mr. Cochran's spokesman said the senator has not said how he will vote on the spending bill, but that all the earmarks were in accordance with Senate rules governing the budgetary process.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, had 10 earmarks listed but said he's "actively working to defeat" the bill.
"I'm going to vote against things that arguably would benefit my state. I do not think this is the appropriate way to run the Senate," he said, adding that senators won't have enough time to properly consider all the items in the bill.
Mr. Reid is pushing a flurry of action while many lawmakers are eyeing the door. Mr. Reid, though, said Congress will stay until he tries to tackle issues he says have been unfairly stalled by the GOP.
"I hate to report all this to you, but, you know, there's still Congress after Christmas," he told reporters. "So if the Republicans think that because they can stall and stall and stall that we take a break, we're through, we're not through."
Mr. Reid said he'll force votes on the spending bill, expiring tax cuts, the Dream Act that would legalize hundreds of thousands illegal immigrants, a nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia, and a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on openly gay service members.
That issue got a boost Tuesday when House Democratic leaders said they'll introduce a stand-alone bill to repeal the military policy.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Defense Department officials have expressed concern that courts will address the issue if Congress doesn't, and they prefer the orderly transition that legislation would provide.
Republicans said the rush is unwarranted.
"The repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' is wrapped in emotion on both sides of the political spectrum," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, California Republican, who will become House Armed Services Committee chairman next year. "That intensity, along with the military service chiefs' concerns that a repeal would negatively impact our force fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, demands a comprehensive review and intense oversight before we rush to make a change."
Mr. Reid also said he'll make good on a campaign promise to try to pass legislation known as the Dream Act, which would grant temporary legal status to most illegal immigrants younger than 30 who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 and who have been in the country at least five years. It would grant a further path to citizenship to those who go on to college or join the U.S. military.
The bill passed the House last week, leaving Senate action the only obstacle to Mr. Obama's signature.
Republicans said Mr. Reid has so loaded the schedule that it could hurt the chances for anything to pass.
"I think all of you have been around here long enough to ask yourself: How could all of that reasonably be done? Now, the answer is, of course, it can't. And at some point, the leader will have to say no," said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.
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