- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

After a week off taking a victory lap for passing an economic stimulus, Congress’ Democratic leaders return to Washington on Monday for a second race against the clock to pass another massive spending package.

This time it is a roughly $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill that would fund most of the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year, replacing stopgap funding that expires March 6.

The Senate this week also is expected to take up long-debated legislation to give the District a voting member in the House and the confirmation of Labor Secretary-designee Hilda L. Solis, one of the last vacancies in President Obama’s Cabinet.

The omnibus spending bill already has become a target for Republican attacks on the Democrat-led Congress’ penchant for pork-barrel projects and burgeoning deficits.

Mr. Obama will confront that criticism head on this week when he addresses Congress on Tuesday and submits a 2010 budget that promises to cut the federal deficit for $1.3 trillion to $533 billion in four years.

He also will convene a White House summit on fiscal responsibility Monday with congressional leaders from both parties, as well as economists and interest group members.

Democrats nevertheless risk wearing out voters’ patience with Congress’ spending habits as the omnibus package arrives on the heels of a $700 billion Wall Street bailout and a $787 billion economic stimulus. It will be followed by the budget bill - likely sparking fresh debate over pork projects - and likely more pricey measures to prop up the financial, housing and automotive industries.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged the political risk associated with passing so much expensive legislation in such a short period of time.

“There are many challenges ahead, and they all have to fit into a strategic plan for a strong economy in a fiscally sound way, accountable to the public,” the California Democrat said.

“Each of these pieces of legislation will have to justify its existence in those terms, also in terms of, how does the taxpayer get paid back?” she said. “Because we absolutely intend to proceed in a very fiscally sound way.”

Republicans have objected to Democrats keeping the omnibus spending bill hidden from public view for weeks, despite calls to post it on the Internet. The secrecy spurred Republican speculation the bill could be loaded with expensive pet projects or partisan policy directives such as a renewed ban on offshore oil drilling.

“Time is running short, and American taxpayers deserve to know how their hard-earned tax dollars will be used under this legislation,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

“The fact that the Democratic majority is planning to bring this massive spending bill to the House floor just days after Congress approved the trillion-dollar stimulus spending plan is added proof that ‘borrow and spend’ has become Washington’s go-to strategy for funding more programs and projects that taxpayers do not need and cannot afford,” he said.

The omnibus, which contains nine of the 12 annual appropriation bills, is expected to increase government spending about 6 percent over fiscal 2008 levels.

The other three annual spending bills - Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security - were passed last year with a continuing resolution that has kept the government running at 2008 funding levels since the fiscal year began Oct. 1. The continuing resolution expires March 6.

A House vote on the omnibus spending bill could come as soon as Wednesday.

The Senate could vote on the District representation bill and the confirmation of Mrs. Solis as soon as Tuesday. Both will require 60 votes to survive.

“We see a light at the end of a very long tunnel for voting rights for D.C. residents,” said Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate to the House.

But she said she anticipates Republican moves to block the legislation, which would offset the all but certain addition of a Democratic vote in the chamber by giving another House member to solidly Republican Utah.

Republican leaders oppose the measure because they say it violates the U.S. Constitution’s establishment that only states shall have voting representation in Congress.

A constitutional amendment would be the proper mechanism to extend full representation to the District, opponents argue.

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