Sometimes in Congress, the physical size of the bill matters.
Last week's aborted $1.1 trillion "omnibus" spending bill ran to 1,926 pages and ended up costing taxpayers more than $78,000 just for the Government Printing Office to print out 650 copies. The size alone helped Republicans sink the measure so quickly that Democrats officially never called up the bill on the Senate floor for action, even though Congress is racing a Tuesday deadline for preventing a government shutdown.
Fighting back, Republicans countered with the simplest bill they could: a one-page continuing resolution that would have kept the government open at 2010 levels for two more months. Democrats rejected that bill, arguing that it shortchanged Congress' authority to oversee the money the government spends.
Now, the two sides are headed toward a vote Tuesday on a 36-page continuing resolution, or "CR" in Congress-speak, that will keep the government running through early March with some specific tweaks to boost critical needs.
"We need to act as quickly as possible, for the current CR expires tomorrow at midnight," Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, warned on the chamber floor Monday morning.
It has become an annual dance as Congress rarely manages to pass the required dozen spending bills by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. That leaves lawmakers to grapple with whether to pass an omnibus bill that piles hundreds of billions of dollars in spending into a little-scrutinized measure, or to punt on the whole exercise and just extend the previous year's spending in a continuing resolution.
The immediate difference this year: The 36-page resolution on which the Senate will vote Tuesday funds the government at an annualized rate of $1.091 trillion, about $16 billion less than Democrats were proposing to spend in their failed omnibus bill.
But at root, it's a question of whether lawmakers make things better or worse when they legislate.
"Nothing good comes from a CR," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, the day after the omnibus failed. "The Congress owes it to the American people to demand that programs funded by their hard-earned money will be for the best purposes we can recommend based on the countless hours of work of our committees and their staff."
He and other Democrats wanted to put their own stamp on a final spending bill before Republicans take control of the House next year, reducing Democrats' maneuvering room. Among their changes is extending funding for a low-income heating assistance program and for Pell Grant spending for low-income college students, and boosting funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But Democrats' space for action has been dramatically constrained after two years of massive bills, which became targets for "tea party" protests.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said last month's election showed that voters have lost faith in lawmakers to make the right decisions when it comes to big bills.
"Americans don't want massive, trillion-dollar bills rushed through Congress on our way out the door. They want us to be careful and responsible with their money," Mr. McConnell said.
In spending debates, the physical size of a bill becomes a synonym for waste and abuse, which is why Mr. McConnell repeatedly hefted a 14-inch-tall printed version of the Democrats' bill as he railed against the measure on the Senate floor, pointing out that it took two days to print and deliver it to the Senate.
By late Thursday, Mr. McConnell had managed to persuade his Republican colleagues not to support the legislation, leaving Mr. Reid with no choice but to pull the bill from the floor or lose a time-consuming filibuster. Mr. Reid pulled the bill even before it had officially been called up - which meant the 650 copies of the two-volume, 3-inch-thick document were obsolete even before they were made available to senators and the public. At 6.3 cents per page per document, that means the Government Printing Office spent $78,869 for a measure that never officially made it to the floor.
Congress has not passed its appropriations bills before the start of the fiscal year in 15 years.
Three continuing resolutions have been passed this year, and the latest is scheduled to expire Tuesday night, which explains Mr. Reid's demand for quick action. Both the Senate and House must act, and then send the bill to President Obama for his signature.
The record was set during debate over fiscal year 2001 spending, when Congress passed 21 continuing resolutions, according to the Congressional Research Service.
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