Senate Fight Seen Over Earmark-Laden Spending Bill

Politics Reuters

Senate Democrats on Tuesday unveiled an earmark-laden spending bill that would fund the entire U.S. government, and Republicans who have renounced the pet spending projects quickly vowed to oppose it.

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The 2,000-page spending bill, months overdue, would enable President Barack Obama to tighten financial oversight, subsidize college tuition bills and move forward with other priorities that have essentially been on hold since the fiscal year began in October.

But the presence of thousands of earmarks -- for everything from road resurfacing in Alaska to barge-traffic studies in Missouri -- complicates its prospects for passage before current funding runs out on Saturday.

Earmarks have become a prime example of wasteful government spending for many voters, and Republicans in both the House of Representatives and Senate have sworn them off as they eye dramatic spending cuts next year.

A "yes" vote on the bill could prove awkward for Republicans, as the measure includes many earmarks they sought before their recent change of heart -- including some by the chamber's top Republican, Senator Mitch McConnell.

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McConnell told reporters he opposes the spending measure and was working to defeat it.
"I think there are many Senate members who have provisions in it for their states who are also actively working to defeat it. This -- this bill should not go forward. It is completely and totally inappropriate to wrap all of this up into a 2,000-page bill and try to pass it the week before Christmas."

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The $1.1 trillion bill will not be able to pass the Senate without at least some Republican support, but the chamber's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, said it was "the overwhelming view" of Republicans that they should oppose the measure.

The $8 billion worth of known earmarks represents a drop from last year's level, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The bill would cap overall spending at roughly last year's level, providing $29 billion less than Obama requested.

That reflects the changed political climate in Washington as voters, unnerved by record levels of U.S. debt, handed a big victory to Republicans in the November 2 congressional elections.

SALARY FREEZE, GUANTANAMO BAN

The spending bill would freeze the salaries of non-defense federal employees through 2013 and prohibit the administration from bringing terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba to the United States to face criminal trial.

The measure includes $450 million to continue work on a second engine for the F-35 fighter plane, defying the Pentagon's efforts to kill off a program it has described as wasteful.

The bill represents a severe breakdown in the budget process. Congress is supposed to pass 12 individual spending bills by the beginning of the fiscal year in October, but rarely does so.

Congress has kept the government running on autopilot since October to avoid a catastrophic shutdown that would affect everything from the military to national parks. That approach has prevented agencies from doling out new research grants and launching other programs.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, has deferred setting up new offices to oversee areas such as credit rating agencies and municipal securities it is tasked with regulating under the Dodd-Frank crackdown on Wall Street.

The Senate Democrats' bill wraps the 12 spending bills into one unwieldy package.

Still, it would represent an improvement over the funding bill that passed the House last week. That bill would essentially extend last year's budget through the rest of the current fiscal year, an approach that would make it difficult to shift funding to high-priority areas.

"I do not believe that putting the government on autopilot for a full year is in the best interest of the American people," said Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, who oversees spending as head of the Appropriations Committee.

McConnell said Congress should extend last year's budget for several more months. That would give Republicans a greater chance to enact the deep cuts they have promised, as they will control the House and wield greater clout in the Senate starting in January.

The Senate is expected to take up the spending bill on Wednesday or Thursday.