- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The first major spending bill of the new Obama administration came stuffed with some old-fashioned pork as a $410 billion omnibus bill covering a slew of federal agencies won final approval Tuesday in the Senate.

The bill to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year now goes to President Obama, just a day before a temporary spending law was due to expire. The clash over pork projects and spending levels foreshadowed the battle ahead for Mr. Obama’s $3.55 trillion budget for 2010.

Senate Democrats had to beat back a number of Republican amendments to the bill, as any change would have forced another politically difficult vote in the House of Representatives and possibly killed the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, expressed frustration that the omnibus bill had taken so long to pass.

“I hope we can move on to other things with a little more cooperation,” Mr. Reid said Tuesday.

Among the amendments rejected were measures to effectively ensure continued funding for the District of Columbia’s school-voucher program, an amendment to end the automatic annual pay increase for lawmakers and a provision offered by Sen. John McCain to strip about 9,000 earmarks from the spending bill.

“The first chance to show change [under Mr. Obama] is business as usual in the House and the Senate, and that’s unfortunate,” said Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, who fiercely criticized earmarks in his presidential race against Mr. Obama last year.

Mr. Obama on Wednesday plans to unveil new rules to restrict the practice of pork-barrel spending on the same day he signs the measure swollen with money for lawmakers’ pet projects. But Congressional Democrats already have staked out the reform territory and are leery of the president encroaching on their control of the purse strings.

“Although it’s not perfect, the president will sign the legislation, but demonstrate for all involved rules moving forward that he thinks can make this process work a little bit better,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

On the key procedural vote to cut off debate, the Senate voted 62-35 in support of the bill, including eight Republicans. The massive budget then passed quickly on a voice vote.

Congressional Republicans, determined to revive their image as the party of fiscal restraint, hammered the bill’s nearly 9,000 earmarks costing $12.8 billion. About 40 percent of the earmarks, however, were requested by Republicans.

Still, debate over earmarks reinforces Republican criticism that the bill is more of Democrats’ “borrow-and-spend” governing. They say the federal spending spree - a $700 billion Wall Street bailout, a $787 billion economic stimulus and a $410 billion omnibus, all on top of Mr. Obama’s proposed $3.55 trillion budget for fiscal 2010 - is bankrupting the country.

In the Senate, the top 10 sponsors of earmarks in the bill were evenly divided between the two parties, according to data compiled by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, leads the pack with more than $470 million in earmark spending, including money for health care services for the poor, water and sewer projects and university research.

“This is why our Founding Fathers gave Congress the explicit power to direct spending: so that those who are elected by the people, not bureaucrats, decide how funds are spent,” he said.

The argument was echoed by Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, an appropriator who is sending home more than $332 million in earmarks - the third-largest haul in the chamber - and has been repeatedly uttered by Democratic leaders who say Congress has already created transparency in the process by posting the names of lawmakers attached with all earmarks.

“If we relied on Washington and predetermined formulas to fund critical programs, Louisiana would lose out to more densely populated urban states,” she said.

But Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the earmark process skews federal spending, rewarding states with powerful appropriators, such as Mississippi, with projects that bypass the committee process and don’t compete with other national priorities for taxpayer dollars.

And the benefits Mississippi reaps last only as long as Mr. Cochran’s tenure. “That’s the boom-and-bust economy earmarks bring,” Mr. Ellis said.

Mr. Obama and his aides decided not to put up a fight over the thousands of earmarks in the bill, saying the omnibus was “leftover business” from the Bush administration.

“I bet many presidents have signed bills that may not meet 100 percent of their desires,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Republicans objected to the bill’s 8 percent spending increase over 2008 levels, as well as more than a dozen policy changes to roll back Bush administration programs.

“If the president is looking for a first bill to veto, this is it,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

One of the most politically sensitive votes came on an amendment by Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, that would have eliminated the automatic inflation-adjusted annual pay raise for members of Congress. The House, citing the tough economy, voted to kill the pay raise for the current fiscal year, but Mr. Vitter argued to end the automatic pay raise altogether.

The Vitter amendment lost on a 52-45 vote, with a number of Democrats voting in support after it was clear the measure would lose.

Mr. Reid and Mr. Obama had to quell a rebellion in their ranks when Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida objected to a provision easing travel and trade restrictions with Cuba. Both lawmakers represent states with large, influential Cuban-American constituencies.

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