- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2012

For years, it’s been the budget secret of Washington — the rules allow Congress to spend money in one year and then take 10 years to refill the government’s coffers, all the while piling up the national debt because the money has to be borrowed.

On Thursday, one senator said he’d finally had enough.

Sen. Tom Coburn, the chamber’s top waste-watcher, put his foot down — and in the process blocked a bill that would extend sanctions on Myanmar and continue funding a preferential trade program for African countries.

Mr. Coburn said the bill spends $200 million over the next three years on the African countries, but it takes a decade’s worth of fees to recoup that money. That’s allowed under the law that governs spending, but the Oklahoma Republican said it adds to the deficit because the money is borrowed in the short term.

“Somebody has got to start saying ‘No,’ ” Mr. Coburn said as he vowed to block the combined bill. “The way we’ve always done it has bankrupted our country and stolen from our grandchildren and children. It’s not acceptable anymore.”

He labeled it the “Wimpy” standard, after the Popeye’s character who famously said, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

His stand irked Democrats, who said they had carefully negotiated a package deal with House Republicans, and who refused to let the sanctions measure pass on its own, saying they feared that without the sanctions attached, the African assistance measure could stall out.

As a result of the standoff, the sanctions on Myanmar, also known as Burma, expired Thursday. With both the House and Senate gone until next week, Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledged they had created a minicrisis in foreign policy.

“We need to move forward on this bill in its entirety as soon as possible,” said Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, which wrote the legislation. “We can’t pick and choose to move forward on component parts while leaving others to linger. There are real consequences for delay.”

For years, that’s exactly how legislating has been done. One side gets something it wants, and has to accept something else it may not have been eager about.

In this case, however, Mr. Coburn said he doesn’t even object to either the Africa or Myanmar bills — he just finally got fed up with the way Capitol Hill has used — and he would argue, abused — budget techniques.

Mr. Coburn’s stand was reminiscent of that taken by then-Sen. Jim Bunning two years back, when he said he would block any action on a bill to extend unemployment benefits until Congress found offsetting spending cuts. Mr. Bunning, Kentucky Republican, lost that initial standoff when fellow Republicans wavered, but he set a precedent that those bills would be paid for in the future.

Republicans have tried to change other traditional spending practices, such as the debt-limit increase. Last year, they succeeded in winning spending cuts they said matched the borrowing increase dollar for dollar.

This year’s fight comes at a time when both parties are sparring over spending — but both also want to deepen the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars with an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.

The African trade-related measure, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, gives certain countries special access to the U.S. market for products such as textiles.

AGOA expires in September unless Congress acts, but Mr. Baucus said the uncertainty has already cost thousands of African women their jobs.

Democrats said Mr. Coburn himself had voted for the same budget technique repeatedly — something he acknowledged.

Indeed, Congress often tweaks the window on spending and taxes to make legislation fit within budget rules. Republicans did it with the 2003 tax cuts, while both parties have agreed to major deals in recent years that rely on the same technique.

For example, a bill in 2010 to extend full payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients for one year was paid for by halting overpayments of a tax credit in Democrats’ health law — even though the tax credit doesn’t kick in until 2014. In that instance, Congress reduced spending in the years 2014 through 2021 in order to pay for spending that was all paid out in 2011.

Mr. Coburn informed his colleagues earlier this week that he objected not only to the 10-year savings technique, but also another provision that restructures the way some corporations pay their tax liabilities, which he said in effect makes them overpay upfront.

It, too, has been used by Congress before — but Mr. Coburn said he’ll no longer accept it without a fight.

“I’m going to tell you, I’m not moving,” he said. “I’m not going to be a part of kicking the can down the road again.”

The Burma sanctions have been in place for years as the U.S. sought to bring pressure on a rogue regime.

But Myanmar recently has taken some strides toward democracy, including holding elections in which former dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament.

In the wake of those changes, the Obama administration sent an ambassador to the country and suspended some of the sanctions involving foreign investment. But other sanctions, such as a ban on military purchases from the U.S., remain in place.

Both the administration and members of Congress want the full sanctions law to remain in place as a prod to the country to continue its path.

Republicans tried to separate the two issues, offering to pass the Myanmar sanctions alone. Mr. Coburn even said he would accept a half-hour debate and a vote on an amendment to use a different funding stream — and said he expected to lose that vote.

But Democrats said if they gave him that vote, they would have to allow others to offer their amendments, and that would become too messy.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the chamber and chief author of the sanctions, watched the fight in disbelief. He said he didn’t have a dog in the spending fight, but was shocked that Democrats would tie that to the sanctions.

“We have for the first time in the history of this issue turned it into a partisan matter,” he said.